We take a look at the history of the men’s race walk events at the Olympic Games

The walks will be difficult to predict in Rio. Russians have won gold in each of the three walk events in 2008 and 2012 but will not be in Brazil after their drugs suspension.

In the 2015 World Championships, in the 20km, Spain’s Miguel Lopez won from Zhen Wang and these two along with world record-holder Yusuke Suzuki, who dropped out of Beijing, will be the likely favourites. In the 50km, world champion Matej Toth should start as favourite, while perennial runner-up Jared Tallent and former world champion Robert Heffernan of Ireland could be up there.

In Russia’s absence, the gold would look to be in Chinese hands and the big favourite could be world record-holder and world champion Hong Liu. France’s Yohan Diniz could also be a factor in either event.

1906-2012

The first Olympic walk was a 1500m track event in the 1906 Olympics. Britain’s Richard Wilkinson was first to finish but, along with the second-placed athlete Eugen Spiegler, was disqualified. In his first walks race, American George Bonhag was next across the line and, although disqualified by two of the four judges, was adjudged the winner. He had been fourth and sixth in the 5 miles and 1500m respectively and was quickly shown the technique by the man who he pushed into silver, Donald Linden of Canada.

A few days later in a 3000m walk, Wilkinson and Spiegler were again disqualified, this time in a sprint finish, and gold went to Hungary’s Gyorgy Sztantics.

After a 3500m walk in London in 1908, the event was standardised at 10km in Stockholm in 1912. British-born Canadian George Goulding won in a quick 46:28.4. Italian Ugo Frigerio won the titles easily in 1920 and 1924 and also won the final 3000m in 1920.

The 10km wasn’t held between 1928 and 1936 and thus Goulding’s Olympic record survived until 1948 when John Mikaelsson walked 45:03.0 in qualification and then 45:13.2 in the final. Favourite Verner Hardno, who set 29 world records between 1943 and 1945, was disqualified.

Mikaelsson defended his title successfully in 1952 with a barely faster 45:02.8. Fritz Schwab and Bruno Junk had a sprint finish for second and were clearly running through the line with just two hundredths of a second between them but weren’t disqualified.

Seven were eliminated in the heats and final and the controversy led to the event being switched to a 20km road event in Melbourne in 1956, where Soviet Leonid Spirin won after only being tenth at halfway.

Meanwhile, a 50km event was introduced in 1932 in Los Angeles. Britons won there and in Berlin in 1936 – see “British successes” below.

The first non-British 50km winner was Sweden’s John Ljunggren, who won easily in London in 1948, while in Helsinki in 1952 Giuseppe Dordoni won in an Olympic record 4:28:07.8.

Norman Read, who had moved from England to New Zealand in 1954, wanted to represent Britain but his plea was rejected by the selectors. Instead he competed for the Kiwis in Melbourne in 1956 and, two minutes down after 30km, moved through for a clear win in the last 10km.

Britain enjoyed more success in 1960 in the longer walk while, in the 20km, Ukrainian Vladimir Golubnichiy, representing the Soviet Union, gained a narrow win over Australian Noel Freeman.

In Tokyo in 1964, Britain’s success came in the 20km as Italian Abdon Pamich narrowly won the longer event in an Olympic record 4:11.12.4.

At the altitude of Mexico, Golubnichiy regained his 20km title (see “memorable races” below) while at 50km, East Germany’s Christophe Hohne moved up from fourth in 1964 to first as many athletes struggled in the altitude and he won by over ten minutes.

There was a home victory at 50km in Munich in 1972 as world record-holder Bernd Kannenberg, ensured the Olympic record finally went inside four hours.

In the 20km, it was an East German victory as Peter Frenkel smashed the Olympic record with 1:26:42.4, narrowly ahead of the great Golubnichiy.

Golubnichiy was only seventh in Montreal in 1976 where Mexican Daniel Bautista won in the fastest ever time of 1:24:40.6. Controversially there was no 50km walk in Canada, but it returned in Moscow in 1980 where Hartwig Gauder reduced the Olympic record to 3:49:24.

In the 20km, Bautista was leading at 17km and seemingly on his way to retaining his title when he was disqualified. Some felt a well publicised picture of Bautista with both feet off the ground when winning in Montreal was a factor in his disqualification four years later.

Three of the first six at 15km were disqualified and Italian Maurizio Damilano came through for a surprise victory.

Damilano finished a close third in Los Angeles in 1984 where Mexico’s world record-holder Ernesto Canto reduced the Olympic mark to 1:23:13. The runner-up, his team-mate Raul Gonzalez, fared better in the 50km walk, where he won by almost six minutes in an Olympic record 3:47:26.

That record fell a further nine minutes in Seoul as Vyacheslav Ivanenko won in 3:38:29 with Ronald Weigel of East Germany pushing him close.

Weigel had gone even closer in the 20km walk where the Czech Jozef Pribilinec edged him by three seconds with the first Olympic sub-80.

Damilano picked up another medal in third and was fourth in Barcelona in 1992, as Spain’s Daniel Plaza won easily. Siberian Andrey Perlov won the 50km in Spain. Robert Korzeniowski, who was second leading up to the entrance of the stadium, was disqualified. However, Poland’s Korzeniowski proved his brilliance by winning the event in Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. In Greece, he won by more than four minutes and came close to the world best with a 3:38:46 winning time.

He finished only eighth in the 20km walk in Atlanta where Jefferson Perez won but he won gold in the 20km at Sydney in a fast 1:18:59. However, this was only after Bernardo Segura, who had been two seconds ahead, was disqualified. The chief judge told Segura immediately after he had been congratulated on the phone by the Mexican president!

The 1999 world champion, Ivano Brugnetti of Italy, won the 20km in Athens in 2004.

Russia won in 2008 and China in 2012, with Chen Ding winning the latter in an Olympic record 1:18:46.

Italy’s Alex Schwazer won the 2008 50km title ahead of Australia’s Jared Tallent, while Tallent has since received London 2012 gold after Russia’s Sergey Kirdyapkin was stripped of the title for doping.

British successes

Despite not winning a medal for more than 50 years, British walkers have effectively been on the podium more than anyone else, although it’s worth noting the Soviet Union didn’t compete in the earlier walks and Russia are scored separately.

The first British Olympic walks champion was 33-year-old policeman George Larner, who came out of retirement to take part in the 1908 London Olympics. He won the 3500m walk from his team-mate Ernest Webb.

It was the same order a few days later in the 10-mile walk with Larner breaking the amateur world record with 75:57.4. Edward
Spencer also won a bronze but Britain’s domination wasn’t a surprise as all seven competitors were from the UK!

Webb won his third silver in the 1912 10,000m walk and Britain won medals in the 1920 and 1924 10km walk through Charles Gunn in Antwerp and Gordon Goodwin in Paris.

The 50km walk was first run in Los Angeles in 1932 and Tommy Green, who was wounded three times and gassed during World War I, only started walking when he was 32 in 1926.

Harold Whitlock retained the gold for Britain in Berlin in 1936 and won easily despite vomiting for five kilometres after the 38km mark. There was a bronze in 1948 for Tebbs Lloyd-Johnson and Britain also won gold in 1960 in Rome.

Don Thompson (pictured) had been fifth with 5km to go in 1956 but collapsed. In 1960, he prepared by exercising with heaters in his bathroom and coped with Rome’s excessive heat to pull away from 1948 champion John Ljunggren in the last 5km to take the win by just 17 seconds.

Stan Vickers won bronze in Rome in the 20km walk and Britain did even better in Tokyo in 1964. Ken Matthews had led for 8km in 1960, failing to finish, but was a class apart in Japan, winning in an Olympic record 1:29:34.0 by the biggest ever margin of 99 seconds.

The 50km in Tokyo was a much closer race and Paul Nihill finished just 19 seconds back in second after a great battle with Italian Abdon Pamich. No British walker has won medals since, with Nihill’s sixth in the 20km in 1972 being the best result of the last 50 years.

Most memorable Olympic race walk: Mexico 20km 1968

The 1960 champion, Vladimir Golubnichiy, narrowly led into the stadium, closely followed by his team-mate Nikolai Smaga. The Mexicans then went crazy as Jose Pedraza of Mexico entered the stadium. The 60,000-strong crowd, who were chanting ‘Mexico’ and ‘Pedraza’, became even more excited as he shot past Smaga.

In the views of most experts, Pedraza was not walking legally but there seemed little chance he would be disqualified as he closed up on Golubnichiy with officials fearing a riot. Thankfully, Golubnichiy was able to respond and won by just over a second despite the crowd roaring their athlete home.

It remains the closest Olympic walks race as Smaga finished a further few seconds back in third.

Golubnichiy can lay claim to be the world’s greatest ever 20km walker as, apart from the two Olympic golds, he won bronze in 1964 and silver in 1972.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s race walk feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the January 14, 2016, edition of AW magazine