Race walking is one of the most technical events in the Olympics program. The racer aims to walk as fast as possible to reach the finishing line in the quickest time possible. But there is only a fine difference between walking and running where walkers are penalized for running.
Either of the foot has to be touching the ground at any given time, while penalties get awarded when this rule is broken. After a maximum of three penalties throughout the race, the walker is disqualified.
Different variants of race walking have existed in the Olympics since as early as 1908 in London. In Tokyo 2020, the two race-walking events that took place were the 20km for both men and women and the 50 km walk for men.
The 50km walk, which is the most gruelling and longest athletics event of all, has existed in the Olympic games since 1932. The men's 20km walk came into the Olympic program in 1956, while the women's was introduced only in 2000.
When success is measured not in terms of the medals, there are numerous performances by Indians in this Olympics and the ones in the past to be very proud of. It would come as a surprise to many, but race walking has been one of the most successful events for India despite not winning any medals thus far.
Sadhu Singh has the unique distinction of being the first athlete ever to represent India in an Olympic race-walking event. He participated in the 10km and 50km events in the 1948 London Olympics. However, he did not finish both his races.
The next participation came in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where Ranjit Singh represented India in the 20km event. He finished a creditable 18th in a field of 34. Continuing this success four years later in Tokyo, Chand Ram finished 22nd out of 42 competitors, which also can be termed creditable.
Fast forward to London 2012, India sent their largest race-walking contingent ever at an Olympics. K.T.Irfan, Baljinder Singh, and Gurmeet Singh competed in the 20km event, while Bahadur Basanta Rana competed in the 50km one.
The road events witnessed the walkers race through the streets of the British capital. The scene of the Buckingham Palace in the background as the walkers and marathoners passed by is a picture forever etched in memory.
The most impressive performance in London came from K.T.Irfan, who finished in 10th place among 56 competitors. In the process, he also created a new National Record with the timing of 1:20:21s. This was the first time an Indian had finished in the top-10 in a walking event at the Olympics.
In the same event, Gurmeet and Baljinder finished in 33rd and 43rd place, respectively. Bahadur also created a new National Record in the 50km race-walk with a timing of 3:56:48s, finishing 36th among 63 competitors. Overall, the performances of the walkers had been very impressive in London.
Four years on in Rio, India, again saw good participation in the race-walking events. Gurmeet Singh, Manish Singh, and K Ganapathi competed in the 20km event for the men, while Kushbir Kaur and Sapna Punia for the women.
Sandeep Kumar was the lone representation for India in the 50km event. Manish Singh produced the best result among the Indian contingent by finishing a creditable 13th among 74 competitors in the 20km race walk, while others failed to impress.
Bhawna Jat and Priyanka Goswami
These performances from Irfan and Manish in the last two editions were so impressive that the expectations started to build around the event before Tokyo 2020
. K.T. Irfan returned to the national side and Sandeep Kumar, who had just beaten Irfan's national record. Rahul Rohila, Gurpreet Singh, Bhawna Jat, and Priyanka Goswami formed a six-member Indian team to Tokyo.
In the 20km race-walk, which was India's most successful event, the national record holder Sandeep Kumar finished 23rd among 57 competitors. K.T.Irfan, the hero of London 2012, had to give a trial to the AFI before he travelled to Tokyo due to his fitness concerns.
He eventually cleared the trials and landed in Tokyo but could not replicate his success from London 9 years ago. He finished the race at 51st position. Rahul Rohila, too was not very impressive as he finished just above Irfan on 47th.
In the women's event, Priyanka, the national record holder, produced an impressive performance to finish 17th among 58 competitors n the race. In contrast, her team-mate and the previous national record holder Bhawna Jat could only manage 32nd place. In the 50km event, the late qualifier Gurpreet Singh could not finish his race due to the penalties he earned over the course.
A notable pattern was observed in both men's and women's 20km events. Sandeep and Priyanka were among the leading pack until about the 12km mark. At one point, Priyanka was even leading the race, closely followed by other members of the leading pack. Both eventually slowed down after this mark and were surpassed by their competitors in the last leg of the races.
There were concerns about the heat in Tokyo for the races. The weather in Tokyo was too hot and humid to handle, but that shouldn't count as an excuse as it was the same for the other racers in the field. However, if they are to work towards conserving their energy by better pacing their race, it won't be surprising to see them go all the way in Paris.
Race-walking or any distance races are a test of endurance and speed of the athletes. The races are physical and also tactical at the same time. Overall, it was yet another impressive performance by Indian racewalkers under the scorching sun in Tokyo.