If it is to be the last 50-kilometer race walk at the Olympics, there will be stories to tell.
Like how Dawid Tomala of Poland won the gold medal at the Tokyo Games in only the second 50-kilometer race he had ever completed.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. ”It is crazy, right?”
And how Evan Dunfee of Canada found redemption with a bronze medal after he was stripped of third place at the last Olympics for bumping into Japanese opponent Hirooki Arai in their final, desperate strides for the line.
“I don’t need a medal to validate myself … but I have been dreaming of this moment and winning this medal for 21 years,” the 30-year-old Dunfee said.
Tomala won the Olympic title on Friday, finishing in 3 hours, 50 minutes, 8 seconds in the northern city of Sapporo after it was moved out of Tokyo to avoid the extreme heat. Jonathan Hibbert of Germany was 36 seconds behind Tomala to win the silver medal. Dunfee finally got his bronze.
In years to come, those three medalists might be viewed as the last link to the 50-kilometer race walk at the Olympics, their names and their triumphs preserved as the closest reminder we have.
The 50-kilometer race walk, which only men compete in, was dropped from the Olympic lineup for the 2024 Paris Games and may never return. It’s been a part of every Olympics bar one since Los Angeles in 1932, but will be replaced by a mixed race walk event — the exact format of which is yet to be decided by the International Olympic Committee. The men’s and women’s individual 20-kilometer race walks will remain Olympic events.
But for the 89-year-old 50K walk, it’s been overtaken by the likes of skateboarding, a flash new arrival in Tokyo, and breakdancing — coming soon in Paris.
The racers on Friday walked laps of the Sapporo Odiri Park for nearly four hours in temperatures hanging around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) after a 5.30 a.m. start to earn their medals. It was the longest event on the schedule at the Olympics. These walkers go nearly 8 kilometers further than the marathon runners.
Yes, they were “only walking.” And, yes, their hips wiggled, as they always do, in an amusing way. But their arms pumped back and forth, their legs warped and their feet were a constant blur for those four or so hours in a sport that’s far more punishing than it may seem at first glance. They did it all while observing race walking’s golden rule: A part of a foot must be in contact with the road at all times.
If we’re talking dedication, consider one thing: How much time do you have to invest in a sport that takes four hours to complete? Ten walkers out of the 59 who started didn’t make it to the finish in Sapporo after dropping out. It took Claudio Villanueva Flores of Ecuador in last place nearly five hours to finish, and he was a morale-crushing 29 minutes behind the guy who came second-to-last.
Tomala lay on his back at the finish, an ice pack in one hand that he had needed to keep his body from overheating to the point of shutting down, but a broad smile on his face nevertheless. Hibbert slumped to his knees, but cracked a smile, too.
Tomala said he had always wanted to do the 50K walk and follow in the footsteps of his idol, the great Polish walker Robert Korzeniowski, who won three Olympic golds in the 50-kilometer race (and one in the 20-kilometer walk). Tomala tried a 50K in 2017, but didn’t finish. He didn’t know if he had it in him. It took him four years to try again, but he did one in March at a race in Slovakia, and he won. That convinced him to change from the 20K to the 50K for the Olympics.
Effectively, race walking’s most extreme event is being dropped by the IOC because it has struggled to capture attention and hold interest. But tell that to Tomala, maybe the last Olympic champion ever in the 50-kilometer race walk.
“I needed something new, something special,” he said. “I thought the 50-kilometer would be good and now I know it is.”
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