Track and field

From New World Encyclopedia
A women's 400m hurdles race on a typical outdoor red rubber track in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium in Finland.

Athletics also known as track and field is a collection of sporting events that involve running, throwing, hurdling, and jumping. The name is derived from the Greek word "athlon" meaning "contest." The sport of track and field was the building block of the modern day Olympics. What started out more that 2,500 years ago as a single race, has evolved into a sport where over 200 member nations of the IAAF or International Amateur Athletic Federation compete.


Ancient Games

Greece olympics-1.jpg

While most recognize the Olympic Games as the start of track and field, the most ancient of all the athletic festivals was established in 1829 B.C.E. in Meath, Ireland. The Tailteann Games was an annual 30-day gathering that including foot races, and stone throwing. The event lasted all the way until 1168 C.E. before the Norman invasion.

Athletics was the original event at the first Olympics in 776 B.C.E. where the only event held was the stadium-length 600 foot race or "stade." While 776 B.C.E. is the official start date for the games, some historians believe they started 600 years earlier. From 776 B.C.E., the Olympic games were held in Olympia every four years for the next 12 centuries. As Greece progressed as a country, so did the Olympic Games as additional races and events were added to the Olympic schedule constantly.

By the fifth century B.C.E., the Olympics had expanded to become a five-day event with multiple event categories. There were three foot races of stadion, diaulos, and dolichos, and field events such as discus, javelin, and long jump. In addition, events such as wrestling, boxing, pankraton and hoplitodromos were added as well.

The games existed until 393 C.E. when Roman emperor Theodosius abolished the athletics competition.

While the Olympics was the biggest track and field event, there were several other "Games" held throughout Europe in the classical era:

  • Panhellenic Games:
    • The Pythian Games (founded 527 B.C.E.) held in Delphi every four years
    • The Nemean Games (founded 516 B.C.E.) held in Argolid every two years
    • The Isthmian Games (founded 523 B.C.E.) held on the Isthmus of Corinth every two years
  • The Roman Games – Arising from Etruscan rather than purely Greek roots, the Roman Games deemphasized footraces and throwing. Instead, the Greek sports of chariot racing and wrestling, as well as the Etruscan sport of gladiatorial combat took center stage.

The Scottish Highland Games have existed since at least the fourteenth century, and still exist today. Other people enjoyed athletic contests, such as the Celts, Teutons and Goths who succeeded the Romans. However, these were often related to combat training. In the Middle Ages the sons of noblemen would be trained in running, leaping and wrestling, in addition to riding, jousting and arms-training. Contests between rivals and friends may have been common on both official and unofficial grounds.

Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century the formal organization of the modern events started. This included the incorporation of regular sports and exercise into school regimes.

In Great Britain, organized athletics was held for public schoolboys, but by the early 1860s young men from all different backgrounds had the opportunity to get involved

The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich held an organized competition in 1849, but the first regular series of meetings was held by Exeter College, Oxford from 1850. [1]

===First Modern-Day Olympic Games, events since===

After a 1,500 year era without the Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of Paris, France guided the resuming of the famous event. These games were a large part of sports history and political history in Greece, as the first games helped overrule two consecutive political regimes in Greece. In these first games, it was fitting that a Greek athlete, S. Loues won the marathon for his home country.

Women were first allowed to participate in track and field events in the Olympics in 1928, and has had a dramatic effect on women's sports ever since. Recent women's track and field stars such as Jackie Joyner Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Marion Jones have helped revolutionize the sport on the women's side.

The international governing body, or IAAF was founded in 1912. The IAAF established separate outdoor World Championships in 1983. Their are a number of regional games as well, such as the European Championships, the Pan-American Games, and the Commonwealth Games.

In addition, the Golden League circuit competed and cumulated with the IAAF World Athletics Final and indoor championships such as the World Indoor Championships. The sport has a very high profile during major championships, especially the Olympics, but otherwise is less popular.

The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) was the governing body for the sport in the United States until it collapsed under pressure from advancing professionalism in the late 1970s. A new governing body called The Athletics Congress (TAC) was formed; it was later renamed USA Track and Field (USATF or USA T&F). An additional, less structured organization, the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) also exists in the USA to promote road racing.

Venues for track and field

Indoor track and field


During the winter, track and field athletes focus on the sport at the indoor level. Most indoor tracks are 200 meters and consist of four to six lanes. Often an indoor track will have banked turns to compensate for the tight bends.

In an indoor track meet, athletes contest the same track events as an outdoor meet with the exception of the 100m (meter) and 110m/100m hurdles (replaced by the 60m sprint and 60m hurdles at most levels and sometimes the 55m sprint and 55m hurdles at the high school level). They also do not support the 10,000m run, 3,000m steeplechase, and 400m hurdles.

Indoor meets also have the addition of a 3,000m run normally at both the collegiate and elite level instead of the 10,000m.

The 5,000m is the longest event commonly run indoors, although there are situations where longer distances have been raced. In the mid twentieth century, there was a series of races 'duel races' at Madison Square Garden's (New York) indoor track, some of which featured two men racing a marathon (26.2 miles). However, this is an extremely rare occurrence. On some occasions, there may also be a 500m race instead the open 400m normally found outdoors, and in many collegiate championship races indoors both are contested.

In field events, indoor meets only feature the high jump, pole vault, long jump, triple jump, and shot put. The longer throws of javelin, hammer and discus are added only for outdoor meets, as there is normally not enough space in an indoor stadium to house these events.

Other events unique to indoor meets (especially in North America) are the 300, 600, 1000, and 35 lb. weight throw. In some countries, notably Norway, standing long jump and standing high jump are also contested, even in the National Championships.

For multi-event athletes there is the Pentathlon for women (consisting of 60m hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump and 800m race) and heptathlon for men (consisting of 60m, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60m hurdles, pole vault and 1000m race) indoors. Outdoor there is heptathlon for women and decathlon for men.

Outdoor track and field

Hayward Field.jpg

The outdoor track and field season usually begins in the spring and lasts through the summer. Most tracks are ovals of 400 meters in circumference. However, some older tracks are 440 yards in length, while there are some tracks that are neither oval nor 400m (440 yards) due to geographic considerations. Modern tracks are made with a rubberized surface, while older tracks may be made of dirt or cinders. Tracks normally consists of 6-10 lanes and many include a steeplechase lane with a water pit on one of the turns. This steeplechase pit can be placed either inside or outside the track, making for a tighter turn or a wider turn. It is common that tracks will surround a playing field used for American football, soccer, or lacrosse. This inner field is usually known as the infield and has a surface of either grass or artificial turf, where teams often set up camp during long meets.

All field events can be contested on the infield. However the javelin, hammer, and discus throws are often contested on fields outside of the track stadium because they take up a large amount of space, the implements may damage the infield, and the implements could end up landing on the track.

Individual and the Team

Track and field is mostly considered an individual sport, but teams exist on the high school and college level. On the team level, athletes compete in events to try and score points for their specific school to try and win the team championship. Athletes can participate in more than one event, and in some cases, compete in team relays such as the 4x100m relay, and the 4x400m relay.

On a professional level, athletes compete by themselves to try and win individual titles, beat world or track meet records, or to qualify for the national team.

Several months before the start of the Summer Olympics, individuals from nations across the world compete to qualify for the national team. Once the qualifying is finished, the roster that will represent the specific nation is complete.

Track and Field Uniform

When competing with a school or country, track and field athletes wear a uniform that usually consists of light clothing so it doesn't impair the speed or comfort of the runner. A singlet or tank-top and running shorts usually make up a typical track and field uniform. If a athlete is competing in a track event, light, spiked track shoes are needed for maximum traction on the rubber track surface. If the athlete is competing in a tryout or invitational tournament, they will often wear a number on the front or back of their uniform so they can be identified during the competition.

Track Events


All running events up to 400 meters are considered sprinting events. A sprinter must have tremendous acceleration and natural speed to be successful in sprinting. They have to have quick reflexes to react quickly to the starter's pistol, and be able to hit their top speed in very few strides. At the start of a sprint, runners crouch into the starting position, and place their feet against staring blocks placed behind the starting line. In addition to the keys listed above, a sprinter must have high knee action, good foreleg reach, good arm action, and maintain a good, forward lean while they are running.

In a outdoor track meet, sprinting events usual consist of the 100, 200, and 400 meter dash, and at the indoor level include 50, 60, 200, and 400 meter races. While the 100 meter dash is a dead sprint, the 400 meter dash takes more endurance, and is recognized as one of the more grueling track events.

Current World Record Holders

  • Mens
  • 100 Meter Dash: Asafa Powell 9.77 seconds
  • 200 Meter Dash: Micheal Johnson 19.32 seconds
  • 400 Meter Dash: Micheal Johnoson 43.18 seconds
  • Womens
  • 100 Meter Dash:Florence Griffith Joyner 10.49 seconds
  • 200 Meter Dash:Florence Griffith Joyner 21.34 seconds
  • 400 Meter Dash:Marita Koch 47.60 seconds

Sprinting champions past and present include Eddie Tolan, Ira Murchinson, Jesse Owens, Maurice Green, Micheal Johnson, Harold Davis, Ralph Metcalfe, Andy Stanfield, Marion Jones, Eveyln Ashford, and Florence Griffith Joyner.

Middle Distance Races

In addition to the sprinting events, running events of middle distances exist in the sport as well. Races that are 600 meters to 3,000 meters in length make up this category with the most popular being the 800, 1,500, and 3,000 meter races. To be a middle distance runner, a track and field athlete must have a combination of speed and endurance. Since a runner cannot run these races at top speed for the duration of the event, athletes must pace themselves so they can stay with the leaders of the race, and still have enough strength left for the finish. These runners must pay attention to their diet, so they have enough energy-producing food in their system for the race.

In the middle distances, the runners do not require a starting block for the beginning of a race, but rather start in a ready position with their knees slightly bent and body weight leaning forward.

The most popular of all middle distance races is the mile. In the history of track and field, one of the most watched and celebrated achievements is breaking the 4-minute barrier in the mile race. Roger Bannister of Britain was the first to break 4 minutes in the only nonmetric event still recognized in the track and field community.

Current World Record Holders

  • Men's
  • 800 M: Wilson Kipketer 1:41.11 Minutes
  • 1,500 M: Hicham El Guerrouj 3:26.00 Minutes
  • Mile: Hicham El Guerrouj 3:42.13 Minutes
  • 3,000 M: Daniel Komen 7:20.67 Minutes
  • Women's
  • 800 M: Jarmila Kratochvĺlová 1:53.28 Minutes
  • 1,500 M: Qu Yunxia 3:50.46 Minutes
  • Mile: Suetlana Masterkova 4:12.56 Minutes
  • 3,000 M: Wang Junxia 8:06.11 Minutes

Pavvo Nurmi,Noureddine Morceli, Sebastian Coe, Steve Prefontaine, and Roger Bannister are among the most famous middle distance runners.

Long Distance Races

Any race that is longer than 3,000 meters is considered a long distance event. The most prevalent long distance races are that 5,000, 10,000 meter events, and the marathon, a 26 mile race. The marathon does not take place during a track and field meet, but rather on a street course. Athletes need to have a great amount of endurance to compete in these races, and need to have very low body fat. Any unnecessary weight can led to a slower finish time, so most racers in this category have a very strict diet and training routine.

These events also require a great amount of strategy, as the runners have to decide when and where during the race they will expand their energy.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Mens"
  • 5,000 M:Kenenisa Bekele 12:37.35 Minutes
  • 10,000 M:Kenenisa Bekele 26:17.53 Minutes
  • Marathon:Paul Tergat 2:04.55 Hours
  • "Women's"
  • 5,000 M:Meseret Defar14:24.53 Minutes
  • 10,000 M:Wang Junxia 29:31.78 Minutes
  • Marathon:Paula Radcliffe 2:15:25 Hours

Relay Races

Relay races are events in track and field that require great teamwork, and practice. The two most common relay races are the 4x100 meter relay, and the 4x400 meter relay. In these races, the event is split evenly over four legs or sections with four runners making up a team, and one runner running each section. After each leg, the runner must pass a baton to the next before he can start his lap. The pass must happen in a 20m exchange zone, or the team will be disqualified. There are several other types of relays in track, but are not nearly as widely used or accepted as the 4x100 and 4x400.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's"
  • 4x100 M Relay:United States 37.40 Seconds: Mike Marsh, Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell, Carl Lewis
  • 4x400 M Relay:United States 2:54.20 Minutes: Jerome Young,Antonio Pettigrew,Tyree Washington, Michael Johnson
  • "Women's"
  • 4x100 M Relay:Germany 41.37 Seconds:Silke Gladisch/Möller, Sabine Rieger/Günther, Ingrid Auerswald/Lange, Marlies Göhr
  • 4x400 M Relay:Soviet Union 3:15.17 Minutes:Tatyana Ledovskaya, Olga Nazarova,Mariya Pinigina, Olga Bryzgina


Hurdles are events that run close to the distance of sprints, but with ten barriers athletes must jump over called hurdles. The length of these races vary depending on the level of competition. 110 and 400 meter races with 42-[[inch] and 36-inch hurdles are used for men's races. Women have a 100 and 400 meter race with 33-inch and 30-inch high hurdles.

The length of the hurdles is smaller at the high school level with boys using 39-inch hurdles for 110 meter events, and women using 33-inch hurdles for the 100 meter race. Instead of the 400 meter event, high schools usually run a shorter, 300 meter event.

The main key for success in hurdles is to maintain a high amount of speed and to barely clear the hurdles so a significant amount of time and momentum is not lost. Touching the hurdles is permitted so long as the top of the hurdle is cleared.

"'Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's"
  • 110 M: Liu Xiang 12.88 seconds
  • 400 M: Kevin Young 46.78 seconds
  • "Women's"
  • 100 M:Yordanka Donkova 12.21 seconds
  • 400 M:Yuliya Pechonkina 52.34 seconds

Gail Devers, Colin Jackson, Lee Calhoun, Glenn Davis, Roger Kingdom, and Edwin Moses are among the most famous in the event.


The steeplechase covers a 3,000 meter distance or seven and a half laps around a standard outdoor track. During the race, the runners have to clear four hurdles that are 91-cm tall for men and 76-cm for women on each lap. In addition to the hurdles, racers have to clear water jumps, that are 12 feet long. While the steeplechase is very different from other racing events, it is most successful for long distance runners.

""Current World Record Holders"'

  • Men's"
  • 3,000 M: Saif Saaeed Shahen 7:53.63 Minutes
  • Women's"
  • 3,000 M: Gulanara Samitova-Galkina 9:01.9 Minutes

Field Events

Jumping Events

High Jump

In the high jump, athletes have three attempts to leap over a crossbar that is set up between two standing poles. During their attempt, the competitors run towards the crossbar and land on a landing zone called the pit. Once an athlete misses all three attempts at a given height, they are out of the competition. Once all athletes clear a certain height during their three tries, they increase the height and continue with another round. The winner of the high jump is the athlete who has cleared the highest jump, and in the event of the tie, the jumper with the fewest misses is declared the winner. If a jumper feels they can clear a distance, they can pass on the attempt and move to the next to save their endurance for later jumps.

In the late 1960s the form that high jumpers used changed dramatically from a straddle technique, to a sideway technique called the Fosbury Flop, named after its inventor Dick Fosbury. Instead of straddling the bar with the stomach, Fosbury's technique was to jump over it with his back facing the bar.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's": Kevin Young 2.45 Meters
  • 'Women's": Stefka Kostadinova 2.09 Meters

Pole Vault

The pole vault is another jumping event that involves an athlete clearing an elevated crossbar. The crossbar is much more elevated than in the high jump, and a flexible pole is used to elevate the athlete as he or she runs down a runway toward the bar carrying the pole in both hands, plants the pole in a pit and catapults over the bar, landing on a pad. The same rules apply as in the high jump.

Women's sport had a breakthrough when pole vault was added to the 2000 Women's summer olympic schedule.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's": Sergey Berka 6.14 Meters
  • "Women's: Yelena Isinbayeva 5.01 Meters

Long Jump

Long jump is a jumping event that measures the horizontal distance a contestant can jump. The jumper runs down a 45m long runway, and uses a springboard to leap feet first into a sand pit. Distance is measured from the start of the sandpit to the back heel of the footprints in the sandpit.

All competitors have three attempts to measure their best jump in a preliminary round, and after, the top eight performers advance to the final round.

The key to long jumping is to have excellent leg and abdominal strength and acceleration to clear the longest distance possible.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's": Mike Powell 8.95 Meters
  • "Women's: Galina Chistyakova 7.52 Meters

Triple Jump

During this event, contestants must sprint down a runway to reach the farthest horizontal distance possible like in the long jump. Triple jumpers have a three jump sequence that involved a hop, step and a jump before they end in the sandpit.

"'Current World Record Holders"'

  • "Men's": Johnathan Edwards 18.29 Meters
  • "Women's": Inessa Kravets 15.50 Meters

Throwing Events

Shot Put

The shot put is an event for athletes with both tremendous upper body and lower body strength. It is necessary to have this strength because the goal is to push the heavy metal ball with your strong arm as far outward as possible. The athlete gains momentum by turning in a circle and uses quick steps to propel their weight forward to gain as much forward acceleration possible.

As in other field events, each competitor gets three attempts, and the eight best performers advance to the next round for an additional three throws. Performers can be disqualified if they step outside the circle area.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's": Randy Barnes 23.12 Meters
  • Women's: Natalya Lisovskaya 22.63 Meters


The javelin event is based on competitors throwing a metal spear as far as their strength allows them to. To start the throw, a thrower places its hand near its center, and sprints forward down a runway to gain momentum. Near the scratch line, the athletes turns and shifts weight to one side and brings the javelin backward. Then leaning back and using a short hop to jolt the weight forward, the athlete hurls the javelin.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's": Jan Železný 98.48 Meters
  • "Women's": Osleidys Menéndez 71.70 Meters


In discus, contestants hurl a metal circular disk in the throwers circle and try to obtain the farthest distance. While throwing the discus, contestants can't touch the ground outside the throwing circle until the discuss has landed. The proper form in discuss involves placing the metal object in one hand, palm down, and then spin several times to gain forward momentum for optimum distance.

""Current World Record Holders""

  • "Men's": Jürgen Schult 74.08 Meters
  • "Women's": Gabri Reinsch 76.08 Meters


The Hammer throw is a metal object that is attached to a wire and a handle used for grip. Contestants throw with a spinning motion, gripping the handle while spinning the ball around the head. As the thrower gains the appropriate momentum and speech needed for optimum distance, the ball is released into the fan-shaped boundary area.

Current World Record Holders

  • "Men's": Yuriy Sedykh 86.74 Meters
  • "Women's: Tatyana Lysenko 77.41 Meters


  1. John Arlott (ed.), 1975, Oxford Companion to Sports and Games. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192115386

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Conger, R. Track and Field. A.S. Barnes and Co. 1939. OCLC 1829001
  • Doherty, K. Modern Track and Field. Prentice-Hall. 1963. OCLC 492520
  • Jacoby, E. Applied Techniques In Track and Field. Leisure Press. 1983. ISBN 0880110503.
  • Track & Field News Track & Field News, 2004. Retrieved October 24, 2007.

External links

All links retrieved May 1, 2023.

Athletics events

Sprints: 60 m | 100 m | 200 m | 400 m

Hurdles: 60 m hurdles | 100 m hurdles | 110 m hurdles | 400 m hurdles

Middle distance: 800 m | 1500 m | 3000 m | steeplechase

Long distance: 5,000 m | 10,000 m | half marathon | marathon | ultramarathon | multiday races | Cross country running

Relays: 4 × 100 m | 4 × 400 m;       Racewalking;       Wheelchair racing

Throws: Discus | Hammer | Javelin | Shot put

Jumps: High jump | Long jump | Pole vault | Triple jump

Combination: Pentathlon | Heptathlon | Decathlon

Highly uncommon: Standing high jump | Standing long jump | Standing triple jump


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