Track and Field History and the Origins of the Sport

The ancient Olympic Games began in the year 776 BC, when Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis, won the stadium race, a foot race 600 feet long. According to some literary traditions, this was the only athletic event of the games for the first 13 Olympic festivals.

Other evidence, both literary and archaeological, suggests that the games may have existed at Olympia much earlier than this date, perhaps as early as the tenth or ninth century BC. A series of bronze tripods have been found at Olympia, some of which appear to be dated at about the ninth century BC, and it has also been suggested that these tripods may in fact be prizes for some of the early events at Olympia.

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The marathon was not an event of the ancient Olympic Games. The marathon is a modern event that was first introduced in the Modern Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens, a race from Marathon—northeast of Athens—to the Olympic Stadium, a distance of 42.195 kilometers. The race commemorates the run of Pheidippides, an ancient “day runner” who carried the news of the Persian landing at Marathon of 490 BC to Sparta (a distance of 149 miles) in order to enlist help for the battle. According to the fifth-century BC ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Pheidippides delivered the news to the Spartans the next day. The distance of the modern marathon was standardized as 26 miles and 385 yards or 42.195 kilometers in 1908 when the Olympic Games were held in London. The distance was the exact measurement between Windsor Castle, the start of the race, and the finish line inside White City Stadium.

From 776 BC, the games were held in Olympia every four years for almost twelve centuries. Additional athletic events were gradually added until, by the fifth century BC, the religious festival consisted of a five-day program. The athletic events included three foot races (stadion, diaulos, and dolichos) as well as the pentathlon (five contests: discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling, and foot race), pugme (boxing), pale (wrestling), pankration, and the hoplitodromos. Additional events, both equestrian and for humans, were added throughout the course of the history of the Olympic Games. Equestrian events, held in the hippodromos, were an important part of the athletic program of the ancient Olympic Games and by the fifth century BC included the tethrippon and the keles.

Track-and-field athletics in the United States dates from the 1860s. The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America, the nation’s first national athletic group, held the first collegiate races in 1873, and in 1888 the Amateur Athletic Union (which governed the sport for nearly a century) held its first championships.

As track and field developed as a modern sport, a major issue for all athletes was their status as amateurs. For many years track and field was considered a purely amateur sport and athletes could not accept training money or cash prizes.

If charged with professionalism, athletes could be banned from competition for life. In 1913, American Jim Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 Olympic victories in the decathlon and pentathlon and banned from further competition after it was learned he had played semiprofessional baseball. (In 1982, the International Olympic Committee [IOC] posthumously restored both Thorpe’s amateur status and his two Olympic medals.)

Beginning in the 1920s, track and field’s scope widened. The first NCAA national championships were held for men in 1921, and women’s track and field became part of the Olympic Games in 1928. In 1952, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) sent its first Olympic team ever to the Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland, where the squad captured several track-and-field medals. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. and Soviet teams battled in one of the sport’s longest and most competitive rivalries. Women’s track struggled for widespread acceptance until the 1970s, when track and field as a whole enjoyed a boom in popularity. During that time, the U.S.-based International Track Association (ITA) organized a professional track circuit. The venture, although popular among fans, went bankrupt after several years. Few athletes wanted to participate in ITA competitions because athletes were actually receiving larger illegal payments for appearing at amateur meets than legitimate professionals were making on the new circuit. Many athletes also turned away from ITA competition because it disqualified them from participating in future Olympic Games. The Athletics Congress now regulates the sport in the United States; the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) sanctions international competition. Track and field has been the centerpiece of the Summer Olympic Games since their revival in 1896. International professional running, initiated in the 1970s, has had limited success.

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