It is time to walk the talk for a clean race

Some people probably learnt that doping can help a racewalker, which might burnish its image as a laborious pursuit.

The 50km race walk champion could not defend his title in London after failing a dope test.
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You get a racewalking scandal so seldom in life that you must not waste one when it materialises.

A doozy popped up this last Olympic week, and it ought to become one of the hallmarks of London 2012 even though it hurled itself out of northern Italy and figures to live on in a dogged obscurity.

It taught us so much.

For one thing, it offered the refreshing news that racewalking still exists even in this sped-up, bbm, Usain Bolt world.

There remain people who wish to compete by not going all that fast, and while risking the odd wise guy in the audience who might blurt, "You know, you'd get there sooner if you'd just run."

These oddly bold people risk deathless one-liners that amuse for, oh, 16 years and more, such as when the star American sportswriter Joe Posnanski returned from a morning watching racewalking to inform us that the gold medallist was Yelena Nikolayeva from Russia, the silver medallist was Elisabetta Perrone from Italy and the bronze medallist was "on her way to the mall."

In an Olympics almost silent on doping scandals and free of diva denials in press conferences - such bereavement! - racewalking chimed in from Bolzano, Italy, with 2008 Olympic gold medallist Alex Schwazer.

Some people probably learnt that doping can help a racewalker, which might burnish its image as a laborious pursuit.

(From Sydney at the 2000 Olympics I ignorantly asked the American epidemiologist Charles Yesalis, who has spent decades studying doping in sport, which of the 31 sports I could watch without worrying that somebody out there might be doping. I figured there had to be some for which it just wouldn't help. He reckoned only sailing, pretty much ransacking my archery, shooting and table tennis viewing experiences from there.)

Now, if you happened to spot a horde of televised multinational racewalkers blasting by Buckingham Palace - sorry, wobbling by Buckingham Palace - you might have wondered how, oh, I don't know, Prince Philip might have commented had he looked out the window at the time.

You also might have had the thought it's wonderful that the Olympics still allow for such eccentricities.

You also might not have had that thought.

What they did have last Wednesday in Italy was a teary racewalking press conference, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say I have never attended a teary racewalking press conference and would have found one unforgettable if I had. I have never attended a racewalking press conference at all, but let's not get all technical here.

Schwazer, the Italian who won the 50k in Beijing, never did check in for his flight to London because the doping testers dropped by the house on July 30 and rang the real and proverbial doorbell, and while most people would rather see tax auditors or even Mel Gibson coming up the walk, Schwazer did not mind.

He had tired of the pressure in a country that apparently wanted anything, anything at all, to help further erase memories of Silvio Berlusconi.

He had wearied of locking doors and injecting himself with Erythropoietin (EPO) and, really, don't we all at some point.

"It's not nice waiting for your fiancee to leave for training [as a figure skater] so you can close yourself in the bathroom and inject the EPO into your vein," he said at the press conference.

And thereby did he do us a favour, teach us something for real.

One of the snags in reconciling possible doping is that Olympians and other athletes become so familiar to us that we have trouble envisioning them doping. We find them pleasant. We find them convincing.

With his vivid bathroom detail that ought to become indelible, Schwazer offered a glimpse into how the pursuit can be downright pitiful, even lonelier than presumed, to the extent of excluding a treasured partner. He gave a portrait of the extremely compartmentalised life.

He even called to mind the Charles Dickens line, "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."

When I phoned Yesalis from Sydney in 2000, he said he enjoyed watching the Olympics but that he took the results with a "block," not a "grain," of salt.

When William C Rhoden of the New York Times dialled up Yesalis last week, he said he enjoyed watching the Olympics but that he took the results with a "block," not a "grain" of salt.

On the bright side, at least the block has not become a boulder.

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