Running, jumping and throwing. One of the most traditional Olympic sports, athletics has been part of the Games since Athens 1896, the first of the modern era. Today, no other sport offers more medals: 141, 47 of which are gold.
Aim of the Game
Across the different events the aim is always the same: to outperform your opponents, whether in running, jumping or throwing.
Athletics has been contested at every Summer Olympics since the birth of the modern Olympic movement at the 1896 Summer Olympics. The athletics program traces its earliest roots to events used in the ancient Greek Olympics. The modern program includes track and field events, road running events, and racewalking events. Cross country running was also on the program in earlier editions but it was dropped after the 1924 Summer Olympics.
The events contested have varied widely. From 1900 to 1920, tug of war was considered to be part of the Olympic athletics programme, although the sports of tug of war and athletics are now considered distinct.
No new events have been added to the men’s athletics programme since the 1952 addition of the short racewalk. The roster of events has not changed since then, with the exception of the omission of the long racewalk in 1976 (the IAAF held a 50 km walk World Championships that year instead and as a result the event was restored in 1980). The long racewalk is the only event currently held for men but not included on the women’s programme, with the exception of women taking part in the heptathlon rather than the decathlon and the 100 metres hurdles rather than the 110 metres hurdles.
A total of 52 different events have been held in the men’s competition. The current list comprises 24 events. Many of the discontinued events were similar to modern ones but at different lengths, especially in the steeplechasing, hurdling, and racewalking disciplines. Team racing events have been eliminated after appearing in six early editions of the Games. The athletic triathlon (an unusual event, held only once and featuring gymnasts competing in the long jump, shot put, and 100 metre dash) and pentathlon multi-discipline events were phased out in favor of the decathlon, and the medley relay replaced with even-leg relays. Standing jump competitions are no longer held, nor are the various modified throwing events which were experimented with in 1908 and 1912. Cross country running was on the program from 1912 to 1924 and is the most prominent form of athletics not to feature at the Olympics.
The sport of track and field has its roots in human prehistory. Track and field-style events are among the oldest of all sporting competitions, as running, jumping and throwing are natural and universal forms of human physical expression. The first recorded examples of organized track and field events at a sports festival are the Ancient Olympic Games. At the first Games in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, only one event was contested: the stadion footrace. The scope of the Games expanded in later years to include further running competitions, but the introduction of the Ancient Olympic pentathlon marked a step towards track and field as it is recognized today—it comprised a five-event competition of the long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, stadion footrace, and wrestling.
Track and field events were also present at the Panhellenic Games in Greece around this period, and they spread to Rome in Italy around 200 BC. After the period of Classical antiquity (in which the sport was largely Greco-Roman influenced) new track and field events began developing in parts of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. The stone put and weight throw competitions popular among Celtic societies in Ireland and Scotland were precursors to the modern shot put and hammer throw events. One of the last track and field events to develop was the pole vault, which stemmed from competitions such as the Fierljeppen contests in the Northern European Lowlands in the 18th century.
Discrete modern track and field competitions, separate from general sporting festivals, were first recorded in the 19th century. These were typically organised by educational institutions, military organisations and sports clubs as competitions between rival establishments. Competitions in the English public schools were conceived as human equivalents of horse racing, fox hunting and hare coursing, influenced by a Classics-rich curriculum. The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt is the oldest running club in the world, with written records going back to 1831 and evidence that it was established by 1819. The school organised Paper Chaseraces in which runners followed a trail of paper shreds left by two “foxes”; even today RSSH runners are called “hounds” and a race victory is a “kill”. The first definite record of Shrewsbury’s (cross-country) Annual Steeplechase is in 1834, making it the oldest running race of the modern era. The school also lays claim to the oldest track and field meeting still in existence, originating in the Second Spring Meeting first documented in 1840. This featured a series of throwing and jumping events with mock horse races including the Derby Stakes, the Hurdle Race and the Trial Stakes. Runners were entered by “owners” and named as though they were horses. 13 miles (21 km) away and a decade later, the first Wenlock Olympian Games were held at Much Wenlock racecourse. Events at the 1851 Wenlock Games included a “half-mile foot race” (805 m) and a “leaping in distance” competition.
In 1865, Dr William Penny Brookes of Wenlock helped set up the National Olympian Association, which held their first Olympian Games in 1866 at The Crystal Palacein London. This national event was a great success, attracting a crowd of over ten thousand people. In response, that same year the Amateur Athletic Club was formed and held a championship for “gentlemen amateurs” in an attempt to reclaim the sport for the educated elite. Ultimately the “allcomers” ethos of the NOA won through and the AAC was reconstituted as the Amateur Athletic Association in 1880, the first national body for the sport of athletics. The AAA Championships, the de facto British national championships despite being for England only, have been held annually since 3 July 1880 with breaks only during two world wars and 2006–2008. The AAA was effectively a global governing body in the early years of the sport, codifying its rules for the first time.
Meanwhile, the United States began holding an annual national competition—the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships—first held in 1876 by the New York Athletic Club. The establishment of general sports governing bodies for the United States (the Amateur Athletic Union in 1888) and France (the Union des sociétés françaises de sports athlétiques in 1889) put the sport on a formal footing and meant that international competitions became possible.
The establishment of the modern Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century marked a new high for track and field. The Olympic athletics programme, comprising track and field events plus a marathon race, contained many of the foremost sporting competitions of the 1896 Summer Olympics. The Olympics also consolidated the use of metric measurements in international track and field events, both for race distances and for measuring jumps and throws. The Olympic athletics programme greatly expanded over the next decades, and track and field contests remained among the Games’ most prominent. The Olympics was the elite competition for track and field, and only amateur sportsmen could compete. Track and field continued to be a largely amateur sport, as this rule was strictly enforced: Jim Thorpe was stripped of his track and field medals from the 1912 Olympics after it was revealed that he had played baseball professionally.
That same year, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) was established, becoming the international governing body for track and field, and it enshrined amateurism as one of its founding principles for the sport. The National Collegiate Athletic Associationheld their first Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in 1921, making it one of the most prestigious competitions for students, and this was soon followed by the introduction of track and field at the inaugural World Student Games in 1923. The first continental track and field competition was the 1919 South American Championships, which was followed by the European Athletics Championships in 1934.
Up until the early 1920s, track and field had been almost exclusively a male-only pursuit. A growing women’s sports movement in Europe and North America led to the establishment of the Women’s World Games in 1921 and this ultimately caused the introduction of five track and field events for women in the athletics at the 1928 Summer Olympics. In China, women’s track and field events were being held in the 1920s, but were subject to criticism and disrespect from audiences. In 1923, physical education advocate Zhang Ruizhen called for greater equality and participation of women in Chinese track and field. The rise of Kinue Hitomi and her 1928 Olympic medal for Japan signified the growth of women’s track and field in East Asia. More women’s events were gradually introduced as years progressed (although it was only towards the end of the century that the men’s and women’s programmes approached parity of events). Marking an increasingly inclusive approach to the sport, major track and field competitions for disabled athletes were first introduced at the 1960 Summer Paralympics.
With the rise of numerous regional championships, as well as the growth in Olympic-style multi-sport events (such as the Commonwealth Games and the Pan-American Games), competitions between international track and field athletes became widespread. From the 1960s onwards, the sport gained more exposure and commercial appeal through television coverage and the increasing wealth of nations. After over half a century of amateurism, the amateur status of the sport began to be displaced by growing professionalism in the late 1970s. As a result, the Amateur Athletic Union was dissolved in the United States and it was replaced with a non-amateur body solely focused on the sport of athletics: The Athletics Congress (later USA Track and Field). The IAAF soon followed suit in 1982, abandoning amateurism, and later removing all references to it from its name by rebranding itself as the International Association of Athletics Federations. The following year saw the establishment of the IAAF World Championships in Athletics—the first ever global competition just for athletics—which, with the Olympics, became one of track and field’s most prestigious competitions.
The profile of the sport reached a new high in the 1980s, with a number of athletes becoming household names (such as Carl Lewis, Sergey Bubka, Sebastian Coe, Zola Budd and Florence Griffith-Joyner). Many world records were broken in this period, and the added political element between competitors of the United States, East Germany, and the Soviet Union, in reaction to the Cold War, only served to stoke the sport’s popularity. The increase in the commercial capacity of track and field was also met with developments in the application of sports science, and there were many changes to coaching methods, athlete’s diet regimes, training facilities and sports equipment. This was also accompanied by an increase in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and prominent cases, such as those of Olympic gold medallists Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, damaged the public image and marketability of the sport.
From the 1990s onwards, track and field became increasingly more professional and international, as the IAAF gained over two hundred member nations. The IAAF World Championships in Athletics became a fully professional competition with the introduction of prize money in 1997, and in 1998 the IAAF Golden League—an annual series of major track and field meetings in Europe—provided a higher level of economic incentive in the form of a US$1 million jackpot. In 2010, the series was replaced by the more lucrative IAAF Diamond League, a fourteen-meeting series held in Europe, Asia, North America and the Middle East—the first ever worldwide annual series of track and field meetings.