STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All right, let's begin this next story by pointing out that organizers of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing have been praised for excellent athletic facilities. But they made one very 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, which is a surface so hard that athletes complained about possible injuries. Race walkers don't get much respect for their sport to begin with, but this was too much, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports from Beijing.

HOWARD BERKES: 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 like granite.

Mr. PHILIP DUNN (Olympic Race Walker): It's a 50,000-meter race. I'll be taking nearly 50,000 steps. It's going to wear on your muscles quite a bit more. You're going to be much more fatigued in a much shorter period of time.

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

Mr. DUNN: And many of the athletes, and surprisingly some of the Chinese athletes, said this course is going to be very, very difficult. It's going to be very hard on the athletes who are already out there struggling for up to four hours, and we wish you could reconsider whether the whole race on this granite surface.

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

Dr. JAMES McGUIRE (Chairman, Department of Podiatric Medicine and Orthopedics, 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, and that continued stress over 30 miles may result in the development of stress fracture.

The International Association of Athletics Federations governs the sport, and officials in Beijing were concerned. The federation's Cesar Moreno explained, just outside his office in the busy Olympic stadium.

Mr. CESAR MORENO (International Association of Athletics Federation): If one athlete is hurt because of something we knew about beforehand and we didn't put a remedy, then we are responsible. So we must find something.

BERKES: That's what Moreno told Beijing Olympic organizers.

Mr. MORENO: The first reaction was there's nothing we can do.

BERKES: Moreno persisted and suggested a synthetic surface, like the track inside the stadium, laid out in a 2-kilometer loop on top of the granite.

Mr. MORENO: Of course, the response was too expensive.

BERKES: The typical per-square-meter price of the synthetic surface would make it an $800,000 job, according to the manufacturer. There was also concern about subjecting athletes to a surface they'd never raced on before. And some athletes worried that Chinese walkers would gain an advantage by getting early practice on the surface. All the objections were overcome because this is the Olympics, after all, and so much is at stake.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

BERKES: So when the first race-walkers competed Saturday, they had a 4-millimeter thick, 4-meter wide gray synthetic surface beneath their feet. Tracy Sundland is a manager with the U.S. track and field team. He was watching the race, and he approved.

Mr. TRACY SUNDLAND (Manager, U.S. Track and Field Team): Trust me, nobody else could have afforded this idea. And, no, they spent some money. As we told some of the walkers: You've never had this much money spent on a walking event in history. No, this is quite a show.

BERKES: The big test of the new surface comes Friday morning in Beijing, when the 50-kilometer race-walkers come through the tunnel from the Olympic stadium, do their laps on the course, and head back in for the finish. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beijing.

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