What is Olympic Race Walking?

Competitors in the 20 Kilometer Race Walk at the 2012 London Olympic Games
Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images Sports

Olympic race walking events require excellent walking speed plus great stamina (the 50-kilometer version is longer than the marathon run, which measures 42.2 km), plus precise attention to proper technique.

The Competition

Today's Olympics feature two race walking events, measuring 20 and 50 kilometers, respectively. In earlier years, Olympic racewalks were held at distances of 1500, 3000 and 3500 meters, at 10 kilometers and at 10 miles.

China's Liu Hong set a race walking world record in 2015

20-kilometer race walk
Both men and women compete in 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) race walks, which begin from a standing start.

IAAF rules spell out the differences between running and walking. Competitors who cross the boundary from walking to running during a race walk are cited for “lifting” infractions. Basically, the walker’s front foot must be on the ground when the rear foot is raised. Also, the front leg must straighten when it makes contact with the surface.

Race walking judges can caution competitors who push the envelope a touch too far by showing them a yellow paddle. The same judge cannot give a walker a second caution. Instead, when a walker clearly fails to comply with the walking rules, the judge sends a red card to the chief judge. Three red cards, from three different judges, will result in a competitor’s disqualification.

Additionally, the chief judge can disqualify an athlete inside the stadium (or in the final 100 meters of a race that takes place solely on a track or on a road course) if the competitor clearly violates the walking rules, even if the competitor has not accumulated any red cards.

In all other aspects, a race walk follows the same rules as any other road race. 

50-kilometer race walk
The rules for the men’s 50-kilometer (31-mile) event are the same as for the 20-kilometer version. 

Equipment and Venue

Olympic race walking events take place on roads and typically feature plenty of twists and turns, as well as ups and downs. Like the marathon, race walk events typically begin and end in the Olympic stadium.

Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Athletes in the race walking events must achieve an Olympic qualifying time and must qualify for their nation’s Olympic team. The qualification period typically begins approximately 18 months before the Olympic Games. A maximum of three competitors per country may compete in any race walking event.

Olympic race walking events do not include preliminaries. Instead, all the qualifiers compete in the final.

As with all races, walking events end when a competitor’s torso (not the head, arm or leg) crosses the finish line.