Walking Off into the Sunset

According to recent reports*, racewalking looks like being cut from the Commonwealth Games program permanently. I think this would be a pity if it happened. I spent most of my highschool evenings training as a racewalker. Indeed, the one national medal I got in the sport** is probably the only sporting accolade I’m ever likely to acquire in my life.

Unlike synchronised swimming, the other sport that looks like being cut, racewalking is an outdoors, cardiovascular sport. In fact, it’s a lot like running — just without the knee damage. Several of the veterans who were competing when I was in the sport had switched from running to racewalking after knee reconstruction surgery.

In international tournaments with developed and developing countries, I can see equity arguments for dropping events that require expensive equipment (bikes, swords, pools). But that’s not the case here.

* I heard it on the radio last night, but can’t find a web link to the story.

** Under-19 division, teams event.

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6 Responses to Walking Off into the Sunset

  1. conrad says:

    Actually, there are a number of studies looking at runners and knee damage, and they find they do not have higher levels of long term knee problems than the general population. That might not be true at the elite level, and there might selection effects (people with poor biomechanics don’t run much as they get injured very quickly) but in the worst case, that means that there would be a very slightly elevated risk, which is probably far outweight by the benefits (bone density, cardiovascular fitness etc.)

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Conrad, your comment prompts me to replace my racewalker hat with my econometrician hat. I can’t imagine how such studies would address the selection problem. As you point out, only people with good knees take up running in the first place. Without knowing the extent of the selection problem, how can we learn anything from studies of this type?

  3. I would have thought there were several decent reasons for dropping the sport:

    1) it’s as dull as dishwater to watch, either live or on television. It’s even duller than marathons because you don’t get athletes dramatically varying their tempo in attempts to break their opponents (at least not in a way that’s obvious to the outsider).
    2) At least on my observations of a few Olympics and Commonwealth races, All the top-level athletes will inevitably cheat in the process of competing, leaving the races to be decided by a lottery of who the judges happen to spot.
    3) Did I mention that it was dull?

    I’m not knocking the skills and fitness of the athletes, whom I have no doubt are as trained and committed as in any other discipline. But, frankly, I’d rather watch paint dry.

  4. conrad says:

    I think you can learn that the absolute increase in long-term knee problems from long distance running is at worst the size of the mean level of knee problems in the general population (i.e., the assumption that runners would have a zero incidence of knee problems without running).

    A much better estimate for a worst-case situation could also be made by substracting known genetic factors (if they exist — which I assume some do) from that as well as other things which we know cause knee problems not to do with running (like being fat, being heavy, various jobs, injuries caused by sports Australians like that do cause damage such as netball, etc.). You might like to then re-add a bit for known things to do with running that are good for your knees (like bone-density).

    All-in-all I guess that, whilst we can’t get a perfect estimate, even in worst case estimates we can learn that for biomechanically neutral people, running isn’t especially bad for your knees. For biomechanically poor people, we don’t need to worry, since they won’t be able to do long distance running long enough to create long term problems anyway. It would be interesting to compare that to race walking, which seems to have a very unnatural gait compared to running, and see if this makes a difference.

  5. allen says:

    I agree with Robert. The one and only necessary argument for removing racewalking is that there at least 14 other “sports” that are more deserving of a place at the Commonwealth Games. Sorry Andrew, but no sympathy here.

  6. christine says:

    Again, slurs against synchro swimming. It’s just so easy, isn’t it?

    As a resident of Canada (which picks up lots of medals in synchro swimming and synchro diving, which really is very stupid, sorry) and the spouse of a Quebecker (most of Canada’s synchro swimmers are from Quebec) I must register my protest. Synchro swimming is insanely difficult. You try just doing those leg lift thingies. Plus the competitors have such nice smiles and such beautiful sparkly makeup, not like those sweaty racewalker types.

    What I don’t understand is why there aren’t any men’s synchro swimming events.

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