JUDGING THE STRAIGHTENED LEG: My Understanding of the Rules and Use of Biomechanics to Make "Bent-knee" Calls in Race Walking

By Gary Westerfield--November 2002

Prior to 1995 there were more infractions for illegal walking due to loss of contact than for not straightening the advancing leg. Judges who made an abundance of calls for failure to straighten were considered out of line and were criticized and even sanctioned. Now, more calls are made for "bent knees" than for loss of contact. Athletes who appear to be efficient and appear to be race walking get disqualified. Why? There are essentially three reasons.

The first is a matter of grammar and understanding of English. In 1995, the definition of race walking was changed to satisfy those who wanted to drop the contact rule while preventing running-like movements by race walkers. IAAF rule 230.1 is copied for your reference:

Race Walking is a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground

so that no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact occurs. The advancing leg shall be

straightened (i.e., not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until

the leg is in the vertical upright position.

It is my contention that many race walk judges do not understand the nuances of the definition as written. It doesn't help that the definition is also grammatically flawed. What does the second sentence really say? Read this paragraph aloud to follow the innuendoes of my argument. Begin with the verb shall. It is an action word. (Straightening is the action.) Shall is used to denote future time. The phrase "from the moment of first contact until in the vertical" gives the time frame (in the future) during which this action should occur. Straightened is an adverb and does not mean the same as the adjective straight. As an adverb, "straightened" after "shall be," means will be made or will become straight. In other words, the advancing leg will become straight during the time from the moment of first contact until the leg is in the vertical. Straightening must begin at contact; however, it does not have to be completed at contact. Inherent to this time frame is a requirement that once straightened, the leg must remain so until past the vertical. What would be the case if the verb "is" was used instead of "shall be." The meaning would not denote future time, and judges could look for a fully straightened leg on contact. (Look at the way the change from "shall be disqualified" to "is disqualified" altered use of the DQ board.) But the sentence does not say that. It says "shall be straightened."

The definition is further compounded with a parenthetic inclusion to explain straightened that is not correct. Parenthetic inclusions may not alter the syntax of a sentence. Since the phrase "shall be straightened" is adverbial, and prescribes an action denoting future time, the word "bent" alone should not be used because bent is an adjective that modifies the noun leg in the past tense. (The inclusion would be correct if "made bent", or " not bending" were used.)

To reiterate, it is important that the verb shall be is coupled with the adverb straightened, not with the adjective straight. The definition requires that the action of straightening (not bending at the knee) be carried out during the denoted time frame of "from the moment of first contact until…in the vertical." It does not require that the advancing leg must be straight at the moment of first contact, and it does not require that the leg is fully straightened at that moment.

Secondly, when working with a definition that essentially has three criteria from which calls may be made: 1.) make visible contact, 2.) straighten from…and…until, and, 3.) make contact and be straightened before the vertical; judges must change what they base their calls on. Many judges use static parameters to pick out instances of infraction? My eyes, corrected to 20/20 vision, and my brain, giving me normal intelligence have real difficulty stopping the action of walkers at precise moments. Furthermore, it cannot reduce moving bodies to stick figures. Accordingly, I have always judged race walkers while in motion, as a process. I believe judges must begin by looking at action (straightening) within a specific time frame, not for static (straight) images at specific moments. I have often times asked my judging colleagues what they saw when they made bent leg calls. Invariably they said, "I didn't see the leg straight on contact." Remove the word straight from their explanation and substitute the word straighten, and we can begin to correct the problem.

As a sidebar, let me add that in the Spanish rulebook (secondary to the English rulebook according to IAAF rule 9), straightened was incorrectly translated as straight. In Spanish the adjective rectar was used instead of the adverb enderezada. If you have followed the logic of my first two arguments, you can see the problems this causes. Spanish language judging manuals show rigid stick figures with straight or bent legs. One need only look at the judging summary from the last Pan-Am Cup in Ecuador to see the extent of the problem.

The third reason for so many "bent leg" calls is essentially that many judges do not know the process, the mechanics, of how the leg is straightened. (Actually how the knee is extended.) If they did, they could look for straightened legs rather than straight legs. Since the straightened leg clause of the definition is there to prohibit running, I would propose that judges need to look at what runners do with their advancing leg and then say, "race walkers may not do that." A runner relies on large eccentric contractions of muscles in the leg to keep from being pulled to the earth. A runner does not lock the knee on or after contact, so the knee flexes when in contact. The most visible of the eccentric contractions is that of the quadriceps group at the front of the thigh. This contraction is along the whole length of the thigh, visible on the outside of the leg, and quadriceps contraction by a runner at contact through mid-stance is very obvious!

A legal race walker, on the other hand, does not demonstrate eccentric contraction of the quadriceps in support. At the end of advancing-leg flexion, or forward swing, a concentric contraction of the quads positions the leg in front of the center of mass, before the vertical, so the leg may be extended at the knee upon contact with the ground, and then shuts off. The knee in extension then intrinsically locks (as is evidenced by a slight outward rotation of the tibia, a "screw home" between the tibia and meniscus, and a tightening of the ligaments of the knee.) The leg is then straightened. This is accomplished without use of the quadriceps. The quadriceps remains shut off until heel lift and subsequent leg flexion. Compared to running mechanics, the difference is obvious.

In conclusion, how can spurious bent-knee calls in race walking be reduced? Judges must have an understanding of the nuances of the definition as written in English. They must look at the advancing leg as part of a flowing action, not as disconnected instances illustrated by stick figures. Most importantly, judges must utilize knowledge of race walking and running mechanics to make their calls. Erroneous judgement calls, particularly for bent knees will be reduced. Athletes who are not adhering to the second sentence of the definition of race walking will be fairly removed from competition, allowing those who are within the rules to race. In addition, and most importantly for the continuation of our discipline within athletics, some of the amazement of non-race walkers as well of those who have spent many years in the sport will be reduced, and our discipline will have more credibility in the athletic movement.

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