The History of Track & Field

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you will explore the the historical basis of track and field as an event and consider the evolution that the sport is still undergoing.

Fast Feet

Can you imagine running around an entire football field in 37 seconds?

In the Summer Olympics held in London in 2012, the Jamaican men's 4x100-meter relay team managed to fly around the track in less time than that.

Yet track and field is even more than running events. Known by the term athletics in most of the world, track and field includes walking, hurdles, throwing, jumping, and combined events. This lesson focuses on the history of track and field events and their evolution over time.

Ancient History

In order to understand this sport's past, we need to go back about 2,800 years to ancient Greece. Religious festivals at Olympia provided the opportunity for runners to sprint about the length of a half of a modern track. This flat piece of ground where these races took place was often straight rather than curved and was known as a stadion, giving us the name for the stadiums of today's sporting world.

Around 1,700 years later, these ancient Olympic games were no longer allowed in the region. The religious elements of the festivals clashed with the beliefs of the Christian emperor of the time. Although the sport was still practiced to some extent, it would take nearly another 1,500 years until track and field would make a huge comeback in the late 1800s.

Growth in the Nineteenth Century

The nature of work and play were changing by the nineteenth century. In particular, in the second half of the century, leisure time would get a big boost. Industrialized regions of the world, such as England, were discovering a revitalized form of leisure experience in the world of sports.

Whether playing or spectating, this new group of sports enthusiasts saw track and field becoming more organized. Single meetings, or meets, included a variety of events in one large competition, with field events taking place at the same time as track events.

Formal groups were established to set the rules and organize the events. Schools began to offer programs to teach the sport. By the end of the century, the first modern Olympic Games were held and 12 of the events were track and field.

Modern Track and Field

By 2008, the number of Olympic track and field events had grown from these original 12 to a total of 47 events. This evolution occurred due to at least two major factors.

First, many events were added over time, such as relays, javelin, and cross-country. Combined events, such as the decathlon (10 total events) and pentathlon (5 total events) were also included. Some events were discontinued, but more were added than removed during this period.

Olympic track and field events for women were added in 1928.
Woman throwing a shot put

The second reason for the increase in events is the addition of women's events. Though it's hard for us to imagine now, women did not have the opportunity to participate in Olympic track and field events until 1928. Many of the women's events are the same as men's, though there are some exceptions. For example, the combined event known as a heptathlon (7 events) is held for women instead of the decathlon.

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