A schoolboy with the world at his feet

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Stuart Monk's mates hate walking to school with him. It's only 10 minutes from the 16-year-old's home in Loughton, Essex, even for those dragging their heels at the prospect of double maths. Others, secure in the knowledge of completed homework, will probably take half that time. But Stuart can walk the distance faster than most people could cycle it.

"Everybody keeps telling me to slow down when I walk with them," he admits. But that's not easy for the youngster who is Britain's brightest star in the unglamorous sport of race walking.

At the AAA junior championships in two weeks' time, he will be trying for a sub-45 minute time in the 10km walk to qualify for the European Championships. That would be quite a feat for someone who only took up the sport seriously 12 months ago and who has only competed in four 10km walks. "But his times have been 58, 54, 50 and 46 minutes," says his trainer, Pauline Wilson, proudly. "And in the last race, he had tendon trouble which slowed him up a bit."

Race walking... a strange sport. More derided than synchronised swimming, it has variously been described as "sport's best comedy," "wiggle-walking," "gay commuters in a hurry," an "Olympic joke" and "John Cleese's inspiration for the Ministry of Silly Walks."

It doesn't help this image with those foreign legion hats and endless disqualifications. Although there's been talk for years, the sport still hasn't managed to find a reliable device that fits in a shoe and indicates when a walker has failed to keep contact with the ground. Race walking needs such technology desperately, for this is its essence and its problem. A walker must never break contact with the ground, and must straighten the support leg for "at least one moment when in the vertical upright position".

With no electronic help, judges rule on infringements and when walkers are belting along faster than 10mph, it's hopelessly subjective. Every top walker has been disqualified one time or another. Even Stuart, in his short career, has incurred the dreaded red disc twice. It's so common that under IAAF rules you get two warnings before being chucked out. Not much has changed in a century, either. Race walking made its Olympic debut more than 90 years ago - and the first two home in the 1,500 metres and the 3,000 metres were disqualified.

Small wonder, then, that the sport has faced a battle to hold its Olympic spot and that, particularly in Britain, it has been through sticky times in the past few years. Race walking hasn't been very good at countering bad or mocking publicity - though it's got a very strong argument purely on health grounds. It is the perfect form of exercise, using all the large muscles, but causes very few injuries, even if you're batting along as fast as the average cyclist.

At 7mph, jogging on flat ground burns up 439 calories an hour, while walking up a 15 per cent slope at a gentle 4.5 miles an hour is more efficient, trimming 500 calories. Barefoot walking (very popular in the United States) gives the body an even more concentrated work-out, though it's a brave soldier who would stride through the doggy hazards in our parks without some form of foot protection.

It's also a wonderfully cheap sport - just right for a 16-year-old whose sole income comes from a paper round. Stuart is already part of the Essex senior team, and set a 5,000 metres UK Under-20 record in February when he won the AAA Indoor Championships. He is in the middle of his GCSE exams but still found time on Wednesday to compete in an open race at nearby Woodford, Essex. "How will I recognise him?" I asked Peter Cassidy, the secretary of the Race Walking Association. "Don't worry: Stuart will be the one in the lead," Peter replied. And he was.

Pauline, who took a special coaching certificate so she could nurture Stuart's talent, is in no doubt that he has huge potential. He has already represented the UK in two internationals. "It's very exciting to see him improve, and it's a great responsibility, too. He certainly has the potential to be part of the Olympic team," she said cautiously. "For years, we haven't had a medal at race-walking. He has the right mental attitude and the right discipline. But he's only 16, so it's really too early to say."

What is the special talent that makes him walk faster than most people can run? Stuart himself finds it hard to explain his twinkling feet, though Pauline thinks that, physically, it's his hip mobility (more important than mere leg length, I'm assured) and mentally, his self-discipline and maturity. "I'm aware what it takes to reach the top," says Stuart. It's a long walk, but he's getting there.