Olympic Race Walkers Get A Last-Minute Upgrade

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Mondo track surface i

Rolls of a synthetic track surface called "Mondo" were ready for installation on the granite race walking course outside the Bird's Nest stadium at the Beijing Olympics. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes/NPR
Mondo track surface

Rolls of a synthetic track surface called "Mondo" were ready for installation on the granite race walking course outside the Bird's Nest stadium at the Beijing Olympics.

Howard Berkes/NPR
Philip Dunn Race Walker i

Philip Dunn competes in the men's 20 kilometer race walk during day seven of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials at Hayward Field on July 5 in Eugene, Ore. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Philip Dunn Race Walker

Philip Dunn competes in the men's 20 kilometer race walk during day seven of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials at Hayward Field on July 5 in Eugene, Ore.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Mondo surface/granite i

The granite surface (left) was the intended surface for the race walking events at the Olympics until athletes complained and race officials demanded a softer surface. A 4-millimeter thick synthetic track surface (right) known as "Mondo" has now been laid out on the course. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes/NPR
Mondo surface/granite

The granite surface (left) was the intended surface for the race walking events at the Olympics until athletes complained and race officials demanded a softer surface. A 4-millimeter thick synthetic track surface (right) known as "Mondo" has now been laid out on the course.

Howard Berkes/NPR

Organizers of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing have been praised for excellent athletic facilities, but they made a big mistake when it came to the course for the longest track event of the games.

The 50-kilometer race walk was laid out on a granite plaza — a surface so hard that athletes complained about possible injuries. Race walkers say they don't get much respect for their sport to begin with, but this affront was too much.

"They would never do this to marathoners," says American race walker Philip Dunn. His 50-kilometer race is five miles longer than a marathon, and it's especially punishing on a rock-solid surface such as granite.

"It's a 50,000-meter race," Dunn says. "I'll be taking nearly 50,000 steps. It's going to wear on your muscles quite a bit more. You're gonna be much more fatigued in a shorter period of time."

This isn't mere speculation. A test race on the Beijing Olympic course in April triggered protests.

"Many of the athletes — and surprisingly some of the Chinese athletes — said this course is going to be very, very difficult," Dunn says. "It's going to be very hard on the athletes who are already out there struggling for up to four hours." He says the athletes asked officials to reconsider whether the whole race had to be on the granite surface.

The hard surface actually makes injuries possible in a sport relatively free of harm, says Jim McGuire, chair of the department of podiatric medicine and orthopedics at Temple University.

"With elite athletes that are pushing themselves to the edge, they will be prone to developing heel pain, arch strain, mid-foot strain as people come forward, forefoot pain," McGuire says. "That continued stress over 30 miles may result in the development of a stress fracture."

The International Association of Athletics Federations governs the race walking, and its officials in Beijing were concerned.

"If one athlete is hurt because of something we knew about beforehand and we didn't put a remedy, then we are responsible," says Cesar Moreno of the IAAF. "So we must find something."

He says when Olympic organizers were told of the problem, their first reaction was that nothing could be done.

Moreno persisted and suggested a synthetic surface — like on the track at the Bird's Nest stadium — laid out in a 2-kilometer loop on top of the granite.

The organizers balked, saying it would be too expensive.

The typical price per square meter of the synthetic surface would make it an $800,000 job, according to the manufacturer, and there was also concern about subjecting athletes to a surface they had never raced on before.

Some athletes worried that Chinese walkers would gain an advantage by getting early practice on the surface. But because this is the Olympics and there is so much at stake, all the objections were overcome.

When the first race walkers competed Saturday, they had a 4-millimeter thick, 4-meter wide gray synthetic surface beneath their feet.

"Trust me, nobody else could have afforded this idea," says Tracy Sundland, a manager with the U.S. Track and Field team who was watching the race. "As we told some of the walkers, 'You'll never have this much money spent on a walking event in history.' This is quite a show."

Sundland has inspected the new surface and approves.

But the big test comes Friday morning in Beijing, when the 50-kilometer race walkers come through the tunnel from the Olympic stadium to take their laps out on the course and then head back in for the finish.

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