Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski elevated Race Walking as a “Noble” Discipline | Sunday Observer

Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski elevated Race Walking as a “Noble” Discipline

28 August, 2022
Olympic Gold in 50km Walk at Atlanta 1996
Olympic Gold in 50km Walk at Atlanta 1996

Polish race walker, Robert Korzeniowski won four gold medals at the Summer Olympic Games and three gold medals at World Championships. His Olympic victories included three consecutive gold medals in the 50km walk at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004. He also became the first athlete to win gold medals in both the 50km and 20km at a single Olympic Games in Sydney 2000.

Race walking may not be the most obviously glamorous of Olympic disciplines but for those in the know – such as Robert Korzeniowski – it is the sport of kings. The Polish hero succeeded in revealing not only what it means to be a ‘Race Walker’ but also explained how he became the most successful one of all time.

He won World Championship titles in the 50km walk at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Greece, 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, and 2003 World Championships in Paris, France. He also won European Championships twice in the 50km walk in 1998 in Budapest and 2002 in Munich.

Korzeniowski is also the former world record holder in the 50km walk from 2002 to 2006. He established his first world record in Munich, Germany on August 8, 2002, clocking 3:36:39 and followed it up with 3:36:03 on August 27, 2003, in Paris, France at the 2003 World Championships.

Birth and Career

Robert Marek Korzeniowski was born on July 30, 1968 in Lubaczow and is the brother of fellow Olympic athlete, Sylwia Korzeniowska. At 13, he was a Bruce Lee fan and wanted to take part in a sport after a bout of rheumatic illness. Judo was his first choice. Later, he shifted to track and field team, at first to run.

At 15, he qualified for the Polish National Championships. The teenager went on to finish last but returned the following year and won the title. Fueled by a desire to improve, a move to northern France followed, where he would walk to Belgium in the morning, have lunch and then walk back.

In 1984, he was invited to take part in his first walk and he qualified for the Polish Championships. There he came last but resolved to do better and the following year he won. Steady progress followed, and he finished fourth in the 20km at the 1990 European Championships in Split, Croatia. This convinced him to become a full-time athlete but top-level success eluded him.

Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games

By the time of the Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympic Games, the young Pole was already a star in the reckoning, but progression to the very top of elite sport was never smooth. It was in Barcelona that Korzeniowski suffered his first major setback in race walking when he was disqualified from the 50km while occupying the silver medal position.

He also faced the indignity of disqualification at the 1993 World Championships. “I had a big beginning, but I was naive - I had no knowledge and was arrogant,” he admitted. “My training was haphazard, and I was often over-trained and injured.”

However, with his coach Kryzsztof Kisiel, he worked on technique and a new attitude. “I learned to take on board criticism. Another important thing for me was moving to France. I also read up on the theories of training and learned to be patient.”

Korzeniowski dominated the event like no one before - he would, as he said “supervise,” races at his pace. The foundation of this confidence was thorough preparation. Indeed, he once chided an under-performing fellow competitor by saying “for the well-prepared athlete, there is no such thing as an off day.”

This new self-awareness was rewarding and Korzeniowski claimed the bronze in the 50km at the 1995 World Championships. From then on, he won all but one World Championships, Olympic Games and European Championships race over the next decade. Unusually for a 50km specialist, he had the speed to compete with the best at 20km - providing an important psychological edge over his rivals over the longer distance.

The experience at his first Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 was “painful” but “absolutely normal” according to Korzeniowski, who now recognizes he was an “absolute beginner”. By the time of his second Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, that statement was no longer true.

Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games

Aged twenty-eight, the bristling walker went out and won the Olympic Games 50km event in Atlanta, United States by a comfortable 16 seconds, clocking 3:43:30.

“I was always innovative in my training, finding new solutions in terms of being able to switch between distances,” Korzeniowski said. “I picked up a lot from other events, like cycling, in terms of the preparation. Also, I got some technical coordination bits from gymnastics,” Korzeniowski concluded.

The men’s 50km walk took place at the Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on August 2, 1996 with 52 competitors from 27 nations. Korzeniowski won the gold clocking 3:43:30. The silver was secured by Mikhail Shchennikov of Russia with 3:43:46 and bronze by Valentí Massana of Spain clocking 3:44:19 amongst 36 competitors who finished.

The greatest race walker of all time, Korzeniowski won his first World Championships title in the 50km, at 1997 World Championships in Athens at the age of thirty-seven. He was disqualified from a high-profile event again, this time at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain, and it had a lasting impact.

“After that [Seville], I understood that success is not a matter of repetition but of setting new goals and having new ambitions,” Korzeniowski said. “Following Seville, I won everything during the next five years and set two world records. The people all around me thought I was being very risky, using a high-risk training methodology – I would change continent regularly, change the intensity of my training, do sprint training while preparing for 50km races and keep my mileage to a minimum.

“It was all really experimental, but everything was based on scientific research. I worked very closely with the Krakow Academy of Physical Education. One thing that was especially important though was that, at the end of the day, I was the decision-maker. I took leadership of my preparation and delivering the goals I set.”

Korzeniowski’s career went from good to extraordinary as the Polish legend won the 1998 European Championships.

Sydney 2000 Olympic Games

No one in the discipline has ever truly mastered the art of dominating both 20km “sprint” and the 50km marathon, until Korzeniowski. His unprecedented 20km/50km double victory at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the age of thirty-two was indeed remarkable. It was the high point in his career and he achieved his most remarkable feat of becoming the first walker ever to sweep the 20km/50km double, and the first to defend a 50km title.

The 20km event took place on September 22, 2000, with 47 competitors from 28 nations. Korzeniowski went out and, in a dramatic race featuring the last-minute disqualification of long-time race leader Bernardo Segura of Mexico, he grabbed gold clocking 1:18:59, establishing a new Olympic Record, surpassing the mark of 1:19:57 by Jozef Pribilinec of Czechoslovakia in 1988.

Noe Hernandez of Mexico won the silver achieving his personal best of 1:19:03 whilst Vladimir Andreyev of Russia won the bronze clocking 1:19:27 amongst 44 competitors who completed the event.

A week later he blew away the field in his specialty, the 50km. The event took place on September 29, 2000, with fifty-six competitors from twenty-eight nations. Korzeniowski of Poland won the gold clocking 3:42:22, Aigars Fadejevs of Latvia secured the silver with 3:43:40 whilst the bronze was won by Joel Sanchez of Mexico for his 3:44:36 amongst 39 competitors who completed the course.

“In Sydney, I tried to do something above even my dreams. I aimed for two gold medals and nothing else,” Korzeniowski said. “The feeling [after he had won both golds] was like getting to the top of Mount Everest or K2 during the winter.”

He won gold medals in the 50km at 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, 2002 European Championships in Munich, Germany, and at 2003 World Championships in Saint-Denis, France. A measure of his consistency is Korzeniowski ‘s fifteen consecutive Polish 20km titles. He also won the inaugural International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Race Walking Challenge in 2003 - a global series of races.

Athens 2004 Olympic Games

The men’s 50km race walk at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games was held through the streets of Athens with the start and finish at the Athens Olympic Stadium on August 27. The race had started in the empty Olympic Stadium with fifty-four walkers from twenty-nine nations lining up. The Chinese trio of Han Yucheng, Yu Chaohong, and Alatan Gadasu hurtled away from the pack to take the front as they left the stadium.

In the early laps, Han made a tactical move to continuously lead the Chinese walkers, but he received his first of three warnings, fell off back to the pack, and was later disqualified after the red paddle. Ten minutes into the race, the Chinese duo were soon joined by four other walkers, Russia’s Denis Nizhegorodov and Aleksey Voyevodin, Nathan Deakes of Australia, and defending Olympic champion Korzeniowski.

Between 10km and 30km, Nizhegorodov and Korzeniowski moved to the front of the pack and stayed abreast each other. At the halfway point, the leading group had been whittled down to four. Korzeniowski was still in the lead.

It came down to a chase between Korzeniowski and Deakes to take the lead with only one hour to go. Deakes was eventually disqualified, and Korzeniowski steadily broke away from the field to own the remaining third of the race. At around 35km, he had commanded a 30 sec lead over Nizhegorodov.

Coming through the 45km mark and into the Olympic Stadium, Korzeniowski increased his lead by 15 sec ahead of the world record holder Denis Nizhegorodov of Russia before storming his way at the final turn to cross the finish line for the last time in his competitive career. With a historic win, he added a fourth gold medal to his Olympic tally in 3:38:46.

Five minutes behind Korzeniowski, Denis Nizhegorodov of Russia finished securing the silver (3:42:50), Aleksey Voyevodin of Russia claimed the bronze (3:43:34) amongst forty-one competitors who completed the distance.

“In Athens it was very different to Sydney; it was much more personal for me,” Korzeniowski said. “Tactically it was quite different. I never cared about the pace or times in Athens; the only thing I was aiming for was first place. I was smart in that race, against much younger rivals. I just wanted to say goodbye smiling. And I succeeded.”

Korzeniowski secured his place in Olympic folklore by winning a third successive 50km title – this time by a mammoth four minutes in Athens, Greece which incidentally was his biggest winning margin in a major championship race.

“I think I showed the younger generation what is possible,” Korzeniowski said. In the event, his younger rivals failed to match his pace and he achieved. Korzeniowski famously ended his career, aged thirty-six.

Korzeniowski did not rest on his laurels though; there was the final league 5000m track race for his AWF Krakow club two weeks later. On September 26, 2004, he walked another sub-40-minute 10km for victory at the 6th Pino Dordoni International at Piacenza, Italy and this was a fitting occasion for the four-time Olympic champion to end a 20-year odyssey.

Post Career

Since his retirement, Korzeniowski has remained highly involved in athletics. Korzeniowski became actively involved in various roles at the International Olympic Committee. He was the coach and mentor of former world record holder Paquillo Fernandez of Spain who won silver in 20km at 2003, 2005 and 2007 World Championships.

Since 2005, he worked for the public Polish Television (TVP) as Head of Sport. In 2007 he became a General Manager of TVP Sport, a new specialized channel in Poland and served till November 6, 2009.

Race Walking legend Korzeniowski donated his 2003 World record breaking shoes to the IAAF Athletics for a Better World. “It is for a worthy cause, and I want to share my World record that I got in Paris with others. Instead of keeping the shoes at home, if they can make someone happy and at the same time serve towards a worthy cause then, I am happy to give them up,” said Korzeniowski.

He auctioned his autographed walking shoes, and all profits donated to the United Nations Associations: FAO, UNICEF, and WFP. For his sport achievements, Korzeniowski received the Order of Polonia Restituta: Knight’s Cross (5th Class) in 1996; Officer’s Cross (4th Class) in 2000; Commander’s Cross (3rd Class) in 2004. In 2014, Korzeniowski was inducted into the IAAF ‘Hall of Fame.’


The man who would go on to dominate the discipline like no other before or since was not a born race walker. In fact, he first fell in love with martial arts, and it was only when the gym in which he practiced judo was closed that his eye was drawn to the noble art. Once he became aware of race walking, however, he realized it had everything he was after.

“What I really discovered at an early stage was that the majority of walking contests are held in city centers, close to people - that was really different to track-and-field events which, when I was young, would take place in empty stadiums,” the Pole said. “In walking, we were always right in the middle of things. Races were linked to the village fiestas or other popular events.”

Robert Korzeniowski appreciates that it can be a hard sell convincing the uninitiated that race walking is a rich, dynamic discipline well worth a look. But listen to him speak and within a few minutes you may well find yourself heading out for a brisk 20km.

“For me race walking is a noble event. In the old stories you never see the king running, he is always walking, in a very noble way,” Korzeniowski said with a big laugh. “That is a joke but honestly, for me, it was the attraction of doing something different to everyone. Cross-country and long-distance running were extremely popular when I was young, but walking was distinct.

“It is such a bizarre but special event. You are not one of many runners, you are a walker.” Robert Korzenioski is without doubt the greatest race walker ever. His four Summer Olympic Games Gold medals are the icing on the top of an international career that spanned fourteen years.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])