Race walking may not be the most obviously glamorous of Olympic disciplines but for those in the know – such as four-time gold medal winner Robert Korzeniowski – it is the sport of kings. Here, the Polish hero sets the record straight, revealing just what it means to be a “walker” and explaining how he became the most successful one of all time.
Robert Korzeniowski appreciates that it can be a hard sell convincing the uninitiated that race walking is a rich, dynamic discipline well worth a look. But listen to him speak and within a few minutes you may well find yourself heading out for a brisk 20km.
“For me race walking is a noble event. In the old stories you never see the king running, he is always walking, in a very noble way,” Korzeniowski said with a big laugh. “That is a joke but honestly, for me, it was the attraction of doing something different to everyone. Cross-country and long-distance running were very popular when I was young, but walking was distinct.
“It is such a bizarre but special event. You are not one of many runners, you are a walker.”
The man who would go on to dominate the discipline like no other before or since was not a born race walker. In fact, he first fell in love with martial arts, and it was only when the gym in which he practised judo was shut down that his eye was drawn to the noble art. Once he became aware of race walking, however, he realised it had everything he was after.
“What I really discovered at an early stage was that the majority of walking contests are held in city centres, close to people – that was really different to track-and-field events which, when I was young, would take place in empty stadiums,” the Pole said. “In walking, we were always right in the middle of things. Races were linked to the village fiestas or other popular events.”
Korzeniowski was a natural. In his first full event, he qualified, aged 15, for the Polish national championships. The teenager went on to finish last in those nationals but returned the following year and won the title. Fuelled by a desire to improve, a move to northern France followed, where Korzeniowski would walk to Belgium in the morning, have lunch and then walk back.
By the time of the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, the young Pole was already a star in the reckoning. But progression to the very top of elite sport is rarely smooth, and it was in Spain that Korzeniowski suffered his first major setback when he was disqualified from the 50km event while occupying the silver medal position.
The experience was “painful” but “absolutely normal” according to Korzeniowski, who now recognises he was an “absolute beginner” at his first Olympic Games. By the time of his second Games in Atlanta in 1996, that statement was no longer true. Aged 28, the bristling walker went out and won the 50km event by a comfortable 16 seconds.
Korzeniowski had arrived and, thanks to a startlingly fresh approach, he was only getting started.
“I was always innovative in my training, finding new solutions in terms of being able to switch between distances,” Korzeniowski said. “I picked up a lot from other events, like cycling, in terms of the preparation. Also, I got some technical coordination bits from gymnastics.”
A first world championship title followed, won in Athens in 1997, before a second and highly influential setback came in Seville, Spain, in 1999. Korzeniowski was again disqualified from a high-profile event, this time the World Championships, and it had a lasting impact.
“After that [Seville], I understood that success is not a matter of repetition but of setting new goals and having new ambitions,” Korzeniowski said. “Following Seville, I won everything during the next five years and set two world records. The people all around me thought I was being very risky, using a high-risk training methodology – I would change continent regularly, change the intensity of my training, do sprint training while preparing for 50km races and keep my mileage to a minimum.
“It was all really experimental, but everything was based on scientific research. I worked very closely with the Krakow Academy of Physical Education. One thing that was very important though was that, at the end of the day, I was the decision-maker. I took leadership of my preparation and delivering the goals I set.”
And with that, the medals came pouring in. First up, Sydney 2000, and one of (if not) the most remarkable sets of displays ever seen from a race walker. No one in the discipline has ever truly mastered the art of dominating both the 20km “sprint” and the 50km marathon, until Korzeniowski that is. The defending 50km champion went out and, in a dramatic race featuring the last-minute disqualification of long-time race leader Bernardo Segura (MEX), he grabbed gold in the shorter distance. A week later he blew away the field in what had been considered his speciality, the 50km.
“In Sydney, I tried to do something above even my dreams. I aimed for two gold medals and nothing else,” Korzeniowski said. “The feeling [after he had won both golds] was like getting to the top of Mount Everest or K2 during the winter.”
Four years later, aged 36 and in heat that touched 24 degrees Celsius in the shade, Korzeniowski secured his place in Olympic folklore by winning a third successive 50km title – this time by a mammoth four minutes.
“In Athens it was very different to Sydney; it was much more personal for me,” Korzeniowski said. “Tactically it was very different. I never cared about the pace or times in Athens; the only thing I was aiming for was first place. I was really smart in that race, against much younger rivals. I just wanted to say goodbye smiling. And I succeeded.
“I think I showed the younger generation what is possible.”
He certainly did that and, in the process, he put his occasionally neglected discipline firmly in the spotlight.
“There are no days without photographs and autographs,” Korzeniowski laughed. “What is really fun is that I have a lot of fans [who were] born after I ended my sporting career.”