The women's 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships (Getty Images)

20 Kilometres Race Walk

20 Kilometre Race Walk

How it works

Both men and women contest the shorter of the two international championship distances for race walking.

Race walking differs from running because one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Failure to do so is known as ‘lifting’.

The rules also state that the advancing leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straight until the body passes over it. Three violations of the rules during a race lead to disqualification.

The race is held on a road course. At major championships, walks often start and finish in the main stadium but sometimes races finish in places of historic or scenic interest.

Download guide: Race walking, what you need to know (PDF)
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Race walking dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first competitors were the footmen who would run and/or walk by the side of their masters’ coaches. The aristocracy of the day began to stake wagers as to which of their footmen would win a race – some of which lasted for six days! – and the sport became an increasingly popular professional activity during the 19th century, when it was known as 'pedestrianism'.

Race walking first appeared at the Olympics in 1904 with a half-mile race that was part of the 10-event ‘All-Around Championship’, an early forerunner of the decathlon. Individual races, initially over shorter distances than are common today were introduced at the Intercalated Games of 1906 and, apart from the 1928 Amsterdam Games, have been a fixture at Olympic Games and IAAF World Championships ever since.

The 20km race walk has been contested by men at the Olympic Games since 1956. Women first competed in race walking at the 1992 Olympic Games, initially over 10km. They stepped up to 20km in 2000.

Did you know

The first man to cover the distance within 90 minutes was the Soviet race walker Leonid Spirin, who clocked 1:28:45.2 in Kiev on 13 June 1956. The first sub-90-minute performance on the road came just six weeks later when Josef Dolezal from Czechoslovakia clocked 1:29:59.8 in Prague.

Gold standard

Russia and China are currently the dominant nations in both the men’s and women's 20km events. China's Chen Ding made history at the 2012 Olympics by not only setting an Olympic record of 1:18:59 by 13 seconds in the men's event but also by becoming the youngest ever race walk gold medallist, just one day short of his 20th birthday. The two countries took the top six places in the women's race in London.


Jefferson Perez

He is the most famous Ecuadorian athlete ever, and maybe the most famous person from his country in any sport. His first major success was a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games, his nation’s first Olympic medal in any sport. Following his win, he embarked on a 459km pilgrimage, walking, jogging and running from Quito's cathedral to his home town of Cuenca. He scored a hat-trick of victories at the IAAF World Championships, winning in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Liu Hong

The Chinese race walker owns a full set of medals from the IAAF World Championships. She took bronze in 2009 and silver in 2011. After another bronze in 2013, she finally mounted the top of the podium at the 2015 edition on home soil in Beijing, having set a world record for the 20km distance earlier in the year.

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