Liam Morgan

During the recent International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in London, I was sent to cover a press conference concerning the women’s 50 kilometres race walk.

A lawyer and a former race walker had called the conference to vent their frustration after the event was only added to the programme three weeks prior to the start of the Championships.

Paul DeMeester and Australian Tim Erickson, who won a bronze medal in the 30km race at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, proceeded to accuse the IAAF of deliberately discriminating against women and vowed to continue legal action against the governing body until the women’s 50km became a mainstay at major events, such as World Championships and the Olympic Games.

Strong stuff, on paper at least.

But their words largely fell on deaf ears as only three or four journalists showed up.

DeMeester and Erickson had ambitiously booked an entire room at the swanky Le Meridien hotel in Piccadilly. Rows and rows of seats had been lined up to welcome what they hoped would be a healthy attendance.

Instead, these seats were empty. The pair were seen regularly checking the door, hoping, praying, that the chairs would soon be filled. They never were.

In many ways, the scant attendance from the media is symptomatic of the feeling towards race walking within the sport of athletics. It is still widely considered quite a niche discipline whose following is nowhere near that of most of its other track and field contemporaries.

Take nothing away from race walkers as athletes. Their endurance, ability and concentration is to be admired.

Ines Henriques' set a world record in the women's 50km during the event's World Championships debut ©Getty Images
Ines Henriques' set a world record in the women's 50km during the event's World Championships debut ©Getty Images

A colleague of mine was particularly impressed by their stamina and technique when we watched on television as they completed the gruelling 50km circuit amid warm London sunshine last Sunday (August 14), and it was hard not to have respect for those on the course.

But the debut of the women’s 50km event, aside from the staggering world record set by Portugal’s Ines Henriques, proved to be a damp squib.

Just seven athletes entered and, following the disqualification of Erin Talcott - one of the most passionate campaigners of adding the women’s 50km to the programme - only six finished it.

This was the crux of DeMeester and Erickson’s argument in the press conference. They blamed the IAAF for the sparse women’s field as they claimed there were only so few athletes competing because it was only granted a place at the Championships three weeks previously. In some respects, they have a point.

The IAAF Council belatedly, and one suspects begrudgingly, gave the women’s 50km the green light on July 23 amid legal pressure from DeMeester.

The move was made, according to the IAAF, to increase gender equity within the sport. But had they sacrificed quality for equality?

The quotes from IAAF President Sebastian Coe tell their own story. “We will follow the recommendation of the Race Walking Committee and assess the development of the event to determine whether there are sufficient numbers of athletes and countries legitimately interested,” he said.

The IAAF Race Walking Committee were even more damning of the women’s 50km credentials. In leaked emails, Jane Saville, a member of the Committee, said a World Championships event with just seven athletes “made a mockery of race walking”.

“It is an insult to the quality, elite race walkers who have achieved World Championships qualifying times in the 20km,” she added.

“If medals and prize money are awarded as proposed, these are likely to be the weakest performances ever to have attained podium finishes in an IAAF event, let alone a World Championships.”

Saville was not alone in her view, and it is not difficult to see why.

For a start, having a field of seven is clearly not enough to constitute a World Championships competition. After all, the event is supposed to mark the pinnacle of the sport.

The race walking events at London 2017 all took place on the same day ©Getty Images
The race walking events at London 2017 all took place on the same day ©Getty Images

The first appearance of the women’s 50km at the World Championships also came amid numerous questions, not least from Coe itself, about how athletics attracts new fans to a sport which was about to lose its star name in Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt.

Is holding a 50km, which takes over four hours to complete, the type of event the young generation of today want to watch on their television screens? Does it capture their imagination? The answer is seemingly a resounding no.

Of course, that is not the reason it was added to the London 2017 programme, but every track and field event away from its flagship sprint races is under increased scrutiny as the IAAF consider the best ways to innovate, adapt and change their events to suit the changing sporting climate.

Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic champion who is now a pundit for the BBC, was asked in an interview with The Times what events he would scrap and summed up the challenges facing the IAAF perfectly.

“It would be easy [to say] ‘Michael Johnson says X has to go,’ ” he said. “But it’s not about me. I am 50 years old. I am more interested in what 16, 20-year-olds have to say.

“Let’s put it all in front of them and say, ‘Which ones are you most likely to watch? What is interesting to you?’ And the ones at the bottom of the ranking have to go.

“I am not saying it’s easy. But I don’t think that work has been done and I don’t think people want to make those decisions.”

DeMeester and Erickson deserve credit for pursuing a campaign to allow women to race the 50km. Had it been put on the programme earlier, it may have been a resounding success and could have paved the way for a bright future.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe has hinted his uncertainty towards the validity of a women's 50km race as a World Championships event ©Getty Images
IAAF President Sebastian Coe has hinted his uncertainty towards the validity of a women's 50km race as a World Championships event ©Getty Images

Their motives, however, have been questioned by some, who feel they are using the women’s 50km to protect the men’s equivalent.

DeMeester was among the group who successfully lobbied against the IAAF's plan to cut the men's 50km race walk from Tokyo 2020 and he, along with Erickson, has conceded that holding the women’s race alongside the men’s – as was the case in London -  at future major events would be an acceptable compromise.

Would cutting both the men's and women's 50km also fill that requirement? The gender equality point works both ways.

Erickson and DeMeester were also found wanting in their press conference with arguments that did not stack up. Citing Olympic Agenda 2020, they claimed that for every men's event, there should be a competition for women. 

Irrespective of the fact that Agenda 2020 is a strategic plan and not a legal document, this is not the case in other sports - men's rhythmic gymnastics is a prime example - and is not a requirement by law.

Their threat of continual legal action regarding the Olympic Games in particular is also worth noting. There is currently no women's 50km planned for Tokyo 2020 and that is not likely to change. The programme is set in stone and any lawsuit will almost certainly fail.

Their critics have also accused them of only having "self-interest at the core of their actions" - actions which will no doubt continue until the women's 50km becomes a regular occurrence rather than a rarity at major IAAF events.