Robert Korzeniowski dominates walking Olympic legacy with four golds

Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski looms large over race walking at the Olympic Games, being the first man to complete the 20km and 50km double in Sydney 2000 and the first to retain the 50km walk crown that he first won in 1996 through the 2004 Athens

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP

The 47-year-old from Warsaw finished the legendary Boston Marathon this year in 398th place, completing the distance in a ‘slightly-below-expectations’ time of 2 hours 48 minutes 39 seconds. A couple of days after the race, he posted a photograph of his, showing off his finisher’s medal. “Maybe no podium but that’s not something to be ashamed of,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

As someone who has been disqualified when on the verge of winning his first Olympic medal in 1992 and as the most successful race walker in Olympic history with four gold medals, Robert Korzeniowski drew from his knowledge of dealing with stark disappointments and tremendous achievements alike in marking his Boston Marathon effort.

Born into a family of railway engineers in Lubaczow, Korzeniowski’s tryst with sport began as a teenager battling childhood rheumatism. He was inspired by Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon to take up judo but Poland’s martial law administrators shut down the school gym in 1982 as they frowned upon the idea of boys learning to fight. That led him to athletics, specifically to walking.

He survived the heartbreak of being informed at the entrance to the stadium – on the verge of winning the silver medal – that he had been disqualified from the 50km walk on his Olympic debut in Barcelona in 1992. He learnt some lessons, not the least being the need to have the maturity to win. His room-mate 800m Piotr Piekarski taught him the virtues of patience and hard work.

The Polish ace shifted base to France and, as he revealed in an interview in 2004, fell back on making his walking technique a part of the matrix of his brain by visualising himself moving faster, more rhythmically and more economically. The result was 50km gold in the Atlanta Games in 1996 – and, more importantly, achieved without a single warning.

JOEL SAGET / AFP

Renowned Olympic historian David Wallechinsky recounts that Korzeniowski would train in two nations each day. “He would have breakfast in France, walk across to Belgium and return for lunch in France,” he wrote in his seminal work, The Complete Book of the Olympics. The Pole backed that Olympic show up with a gold medal in the 1997 World Championship in Athens.

For a 50km specialist, Korzeniowski showed how determined he could be in his quest with speed as well. In the 20km race in the Sydney Games in 2000, he finished second in a close finish and was on phone with his wife in Krakow when he was informed that Bernardo Segura (Mexico) had been disqualified for ‘lifting’ and the gold was his.

A week later, he won the 50km to become the first walker to claim the double at an Olympic Games and the first to win 50km back to back gold medals. The enormity of this grows when you consider that a week before the Games, Korzeniowski’s friend and training partner (Ireland) was involved in a car accident, moments after dropping the Pole after a practice session.

With gold in the 2001 and 2003 World championships in Edmonton and Paris respectively, the well decorated walker returned to Athens in 2004 to complete a hat-trick of 50km gold medals in the Olympic Games. His legacy as an Olympic hero, not just as a walking ace, is towering, inspirational and hard to match. So what if he has fun in the elite marathons these days.

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