A female race walker accepts some water during the US 30K Race Walking National Championships in Long Island, NY, in October 2018.

Race Walking’s Early Champions

Release Date: May 14, 2024

Category: Blog | Athletics

For the Paris 2024 Olympics, World Athletics and the IOC have chosen to eliminate the 50km race walk. Women did not compete at the 50km in the Olympics, only 20km. Men, on the other hand, competed at both 50km and 20km. As part of the initiative to achieve gender parity for Paris, the IOC and World Athletics decided to eliminate the men’s 50km and replace it with a mixed team relay. (Why do two bodies have a say in this? The IOC sets the quota of athletes, but federations make decisions on the events for their respective sports. Host cities also get involved in these decisions, but that is not a factor in this story. Don’t worry, we will cover this very weird set-up in a different post.) Yes, this decision has been controversial, especially among men’s 50km specialists, like our friend Evan Dunfee.


Race walking has been plagued with controversy in recent years – cheating with running steps, doping scandals, and a move for the Tokyo Olympic races to the supposedly-cooler Sapporo that spawned some of our favorite stories leading up to the Games. But controversy is nothing new for race walking.


Race walking–for men–first appeared on the Olympic program in 1908. Women did not get the opportunity to walk in the Olympics until 1992. Women have raced at two distances, 10km in 1992 and 1996, then at 20km starting in Sydney 2000. Men, on the other hand, have raced at six different distances throughout the years, including 1,500m, 3,000m, and 10 miles.


As with so much of Olympic history, if you search through the early years you find some interesting characters. The early stars of race walking are no different.


Race walking in 1908 held races only for men at 3,500 meters and 10 miles. Harry Kerr was the first Kiwi to win an Olympic medal, a bronze in the 3,500m, though he represented Australasia, a combined team of Australia and New Zealand. The gold medalist in both events, George Lerner of Great Britain, later wrote a book on the sport with the very original title, Walking. His advice for good training practices? “When time permits, all clothing should be removed for a run round a secluded garden, especially it if be raining at the time.”


In these early days of race walking, Great Britain and its colonies were the major players. That changed in 1920 with the emergence of the greatest race walker of his generation, Italian Ugo Frigerio.


Frigerio dominated at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, winning gold in both the 3000m and 10km races. The 10km had been added in 1912 and the 3000m was only raced in Antwerp. He repeated his victory in the 10km in 1924, then moved up to the 50km distance in 1932 and captured bronze. Yes, the 50km had been added for Los Angeles 1932.


Even more than his athletic skill, Frigerio became known for his flamboyance. At the shorter race in Antwerp, Frigerio provided sheet music to the infield band and reprimanded the conductor when he was not playing at the right tempo for Frigerio to walk. If the crowd did not cheer for him as he passed, Frigerio he would chat with spectators or lead cheers for himself. At the time, race walking was plagued with disqualifications for mixing running steps into the walk. Judges would lay on the ground to scrutinize walkers form and style. Frigerio would question the judges as they did this, pointing out his unique style, and thank the judges when they finished.


After the end of his athletic career, Frigerio joined the International Walking Commission. He wrote an autobiography, Marciano nel nome dell’Italia (Walking in the Name of Italy). He received the Italian Olympic Association (CONI) Gold Medal and became a personal friend of Benito Mussolini. Frigerio had a successful career as a cheese trader.

What characters will emerge from the race walks at Paris 2024? We look forward to finding out!

–Alison Brown