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pixel From its early beginnings, athletics has developed into a major international sport, with men and women from all over the world competing in the various events.

So what are the origins of the sport and what happens in the world of athletics today?

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A Brief History

pic29 An ancient sport
The word 'Athletics' comes from the Greek word athlos, meaning a contest. Athletics in ancient times were games or contests that involved physical strength, skill, and endurance. The most famous of these were the Olympic Games.

The first Olympics were held in Greece in 776BC. These ancient games centred around foot racing, wrestling, boxing, horse racing, chariot racing, and the pentathlon (jumping, running, wrestling, throwing the discus, and hurling the spear). When the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC, the games continued but were eventually abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in AD 394.

The Modern Game
Some forms of track and field events have been held in England from the middle of the 12th century, but the modern sport of athletics developed from the mid-nineteenth century. Around this time, standards for different events were established and the sport was reborn in schools and colleges throughout the UK and the USA. As more people became aware of the benefits of physical exercise, various events quickly grew in popularity.

Important Dates
1864 - the first university meeting is held between Oxford and Cambridge

1866 - the first national meeting is held in London

1880 - the Amateur Athletic Association of England (AAA) is founded

1896 - the first modern 'Olympics' are held in Athens

1922 - the Women's Amateur Athletic Association of England (AAA) is founded

1913 - the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) is established

1985 - the IAAF introduces the World Athletic Series, made up of a number of events that take place over four years

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Athletics Today

pic8 Sometimes there is only one event within a competition, such as running in the 'Marathon', but the major championships involve many events: running, hurdling, jumping, throwing and combined events. The Decathlon, a combined event for men, consists of five track and five field events. The Heptathlon for women consists of four field and three track events. Most events are for individuals but some are team relays for men and women. [See Track and Field for more information about individual events].

An Athletics Stadium

An athletics stadium is designed so that track and field events can take place at the same time. A modern track is oval-shaped, measures 400m around and is divided into lanes (anything from six to ten). Tracks have a special all-weather surfaces - cinder, clay, or a synthetic material - making them hard wearing. The 'field' in the centre of the track is a grassed area, with markings for the different field events.


Athletes are grouped according to age. Juniors compete within their age group - U13, U15 or U17. The youngest juniors are aged about 11. Beyond the age of 18, athletes are classed as seniors.

Although you may represent a team or a club, you compete within your event as an individual unless you are in one of the relays.


Various officials organise what is happening in a stadium either on the track or field. Some are involved in recording distances/ times, while others are responsible for starting or monitoring an event.


Every athlete loves to set a new record. Records are recorded for different age groups at all levels - school, regional, national, European and World. Some records last for years. Others are broken within the space of minutes. Jesse Owens (USA) set six world records in 45 minutes at Ann Arbour Michigan on 25 May 1935.

Sophisticated, electronic methods of recording times and distances are used at today's top-class international meetings. The IAAF must approve all world records.


At most competitions and meetings, there are medals for first, second and third place.

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Competitive Athletics

pic10 Schools
Athletics is usually a summer-term sport in secondary schools. Some schools run athletic teams and take part in inter-school competitions. Training, the development of skills and techniques, and the events covered are all dependent on individual teachers and the facilities available at the school.

Many schools run an Athletics Award Scheme. The Amateur Athletic Association of England promote the 5-Star Scheme for English schools; in the south of England some schools are involved in the 10-Step Scheme; and the Scottish Federation have a Scottish Badge Scheme. There are similar awards for Welsh and Irish schools through their national organisations. [See Information: Organisations for addresses]. You can try for the award at a number of levels and in different events so they are open to pupils of all abilities. Ask your teacher what's available at your school.

If you are seriously interested in athletics, then think about joining a local club.

Local clubs
There are many local athletic clubs throughout the UK, most with junior members. [On Your Marks: Where to Learn explains how to find one that suits you.]

National Teams and Competitions
National teams are made up of representatives from different athletic clubs throughout the country. Athletes are selected on ability and performance. The British team consists of athletes from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Until 1960, the IAAF concentrated on supporting athletes at the Olympics but since 1961, existing and new competitions have been developed. These include the World Championships and the World Cup of Athletics plus several running/walking races. Since 1985, these events have been organised into a four-year schedule known as the World Series. (See Major Tournaments below)

Major Tournaments include:

  • The Olympic Games: these Games are held once every four years and incorporate all track, field and running/racing events, in addition to a wide range of other sports. The 1996 Games were held in Atlanta USA, the 2000 games are to be held in Australia.
  • The World Championships (these are part of the World Series)
  • The World Cup of Athletics (this is part of the World Series)
  • The European Championships
  • The World Series - a number of track (including long distance running/walking) and field events, organised by the IAAF, that run over a four year period. Events include the World Championships in Athletics, the World Cup of Athletics, the World Cross Country Championships, the World Half Marathon Championships for Women, the World Race Walking Cup, the IAAF World Indoor Championships, IAAF Grand Prix Final, the World Marathon Cup, the World Junior Championships and the World Road Relay Championships. The events are timetabled over a four-year period, so that there is at least one major event every year.

Governing Bodies
The IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) is the governing body for track and field at the international level. It establishes rules and approves world records.

Currently the BAF, (British Athletic Federation) organises and runs British Athletics. Each country within the UK has its own governing body to promote athletics in clubs, colleges and schools, and to work with the BAF at national level. All these organisations are currently in a stage of transition. A new structure is being developed for 1999.

[For addresses of governing bodies and associations see Information: Organisations]

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Last modified on: Friday, March 6, 1998.