The “First” World Championship
A look back at the world championships throughout the years and how racewalking was the impetus that led the World Athletics Championships to what it is today.
Words by Liam Boylan Pett
Illustrations by Simon Scarsbrook
July 17, 1912. Inside the Parliament House in the old town district of Stockholm, with the Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf in attendance (who would go on to become the King of Sweden from 1950 to 1973), Leopold Englund of Sweden stood in front of a group of 37 men from 17 nations to welcome them to the first congress of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
Englund addressed the group, saying they had gathered to form a board that would be charged with creating rules and regulations for athletics and amateur status – and to register World, Olympic and National records. The sport needed a set of standards and the 37 delegates were given a chance to discuss the rules.
With the International Olympic Committee already, some asked, why would an athletic federation be necessary?
Englund said what the Crown Prince had encouraged him to emphasize: the interests of the IOC must be respected, but the sport existed beyond the Games. The answer was sufficient, but not for everyone. Nine delegate nations voted in favor, five remained indecisive, and three voted against.
The delegates in favor, however, would not give up. By August of 1913 – after much reasoning and cajoling – at the second meeting of the congress in Berlin, the IAAF was officially formed. Over the next 60-plus years, the IAAF did heed the Crown Prince’s wishes and worked with the IOC to expand the sport. The association brought women’s athletics into the fold in 1936 and housed and ratified records in the Olympics and other international competitions.
Then, prior to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, something changed. For the first time since 1932, the IOC dropped the 50k race walk from the Olympic program. With no competition to crown an international champion in the event, the IAAF had to do something. So, the federation held its own championship, and the seeds for what would become the World Athletics Championships were planted.
September 18, 1976. About 400 miles from the site of the first congress of the IAAF, the Soviet Union’s Veniamin Soldatenko entered Malmö Stadien in Malmo, Sweden. He had more than three-minute lead over second place in the 50k race walk at the first IAAF World Athletic Championship competition ever held.
Soldatenko, the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the event, was born in 1939 in the steppes of northern Kazakhstan in the village of Shkurovka. Matching the cliche of many east African runners getting to and from school by foot, Soldatenko reportedly walked to and from a school nearly three miles away each day. (That is only one piece of folklore related to Soldatenko, as there are reports of him beating a tractor in a race thanks to an overheated radiator.) Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, and Soldatenko attempted many different sports in school like boxing and track and field. Running the 800 and 1500m, he failed to turn heads, but wow-ed one of the top race walking coaches in Russia in 1962. He was brought to Moscow to study and compete and over the next 10 years became one of the best race walkers in the world – especially once he moved back to Kazakhstan and began training at altitude.
With long, curly hair that was often tamed by a white headband, Soldatenko was a star in the Soviet Union. The silver medal in Munich 1972 only added to his lore. He was desperate to win gold the next time around. Unfortunately for Soldatenko, there would be no 50k on the 1976 Olympic program.
Which was why the Soviet athlete was circling the Malmo track about two months after the Montreal Olympics had concluded. Up until that point, the Olympic Games had acted as a de facto World Championships for the IAAF. Now, however, with events being dropped, the IAAF gave the athletes another option.
Crossing the finish line in 3:54:40, Soldatenko won the first World Championships gold medal. At 37 years old, he was also the oldest world champion – a title he would hold until France’s Yohann Diniz won the 50k race walk at the 2017 World Championships at 39. Soldatenko was the only champion at that edition of the world championships, because the 50k race walk was the only event held.
In 1980, however, the 50k race walk was back in the Olympics (at 41, Soldatenko did not qualify), but there were no 400m hurdles or 3000m for women. So, once again, the IAAF put on a meet, this time in the Netherlands. East Germany’s Bärbel Broschat became the first women's 400mH world champion and West Germany’s Birgit Friedmann took the first women's world title in the 3000m.
The one-off and two-off events to decide world champions wasn’t garnering as much attention as a full track meeting – the Associated Press managed only a two sentence story about Soldatenko’s win in 1976 that was then disseminated across papers across the US.
The IAAF needed something else, it seemed, to get people excited about track and field. Something bigger.
July 15, 2022. The 18th edition of the World Athletics Championships will commence in Eugene, Oregon. Medals will be handed out in 49 events, and a team trophy will be awarded to the top country. It will look a little different than the “first” World Championship and the race walk of 1976 at the otherworldly Hayward Field.
In fact, that event – along with the 1980 women’s competition – was not counted when World Athletics (the IAAF changed its name in 2019) announced the 18th edition would be held in the U.S. After the 1980 World Championships, the IAAF moved its championships to odd years, so as not to impact the Olympic schedule. In 1983 in Helsinki, 1,333 athletes competed over 41 events at the first official World Athletics Championships. The event has grown ever since, morphing into what it is today.
When the pandemic postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics one year, World Athletics followed the heed of the original IAAF Congress and acted in accordance with the IOC, moving the 2021 World Athletics Championships to 2022, giving athletes more opportunities to focus.
Over two weeks in the Pacific Northwest of the US, athletes from around the globe will put up some of the most impressive marks the world has ever seen – from the 100m to the marathon. One event, however, is missing. The farthest race walking event at the 2022 World Athletics Championships remains 35k.