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Athletics: The Sport of Running, Jumping, and Throwing Explained

Athletics is a group of sporting events that involves competitive running, jumping, throwing, and walking.[1] The most common types of athletics competitions are track and field, road running, cross-country running, and racewalking.

The results of racing events are decided by finishing position (or time, where measured), while the jumps and throws are won by the athlete that achieves the highest or furthest measurement from a series of attempts. The simplicity of the competitions, and the lack of a need for expensive equipment, makes athletics one of the most common types of sports in the world. Athletics is mostly an individual sport, with the exception of relay races and competitions which combine athletes' performances for a team score, such as cross country.


Organized athletics are traced back to the Ancient Olympic Games from 776 BC. The rules and format of the modern events in athletics were defined in Western Europe and North America in the 19th and early 20th century, and were then spread to other parts of the world. Most modern top level meetings are held under the auspices of World Athletics, the global governing body for the sport of athletics, or its member continental and national federations.

The athletics meeting forms the backbone of the Summer Olympics. The foremost international athletics meeting is the World Athletics Championships, which incorporates track and field, marathon running and race walking. Other top level competitions in athletics include the World Athletics Cross Country Championships and the World Half Marathon Championships. Athletes with a physical disability compete at the Summer Paralympics and the World Para Athletics Championships.

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In much of North America, athletics is synonymous with sports in general, maintaining the historical usage of the term. The word "athletics" is rarely used to refer to the sport of athletics in this region. Track and field is preferred, and is used in the United States and Canada to refer to athletics events, including race-walking and marathon running (although cross country running is typically considered a separate sport).

The Cotswold Olympic Games, a sports festival which emerged in 17th century England, featured athletics in the form of sledgehammer throwing contests.[7] Annually, from 1796 to 1798, L'Olympiade de la République was held in revolutionary France, and is an early forerunner to the modern Olympic Games. The premier event of this competition was a running event, but various ancient Greek disciplines were also on display. The 1796 Olympiade marked the introduction of the metric system into the sport.[8]

Athletics competitions were held about 1812 at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst,[9] and in 1840 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire at the Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt. The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich held an organised competition in 1849, and a regular series of closed meetings open only to undergraduates, was held by Exeter College, Oxford, from 1850.[10] The annual Wenlock Olympian Games, first held in 1850 in Wenlock, England, incorporated athletics events into its sports programme.[11]

The first modern-style indoor athletics meetings were recorded shortly after in the 1860s, including a meet at Ashburnham Hall in London which featured four running events and a triple jump competition.[12][13]

An athletics competition was included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and it has been as one of the foremost competitions at the quadrennial multi-sport event ever since. Originally for men only, the 1928 Olympics saw the introduction of women's events in the athletics programme. Athletics is part of the Paralympic Games since the inaugural Games in 1960. Athletics has a very high-profile during major championships, especially the Olympics, but otherwise is less popular.

World Athletics, the sport's governing body, defines athletics in six disciplines: track and field, road running, race walking, cross country running, mountain running, and trail running.[19] Mountain running was added in 2003 and trail running was added in 2015.[20][21][22][23]

All forms of athletics are individual sports with the exception of relay races. However, athletes' performances are often tallied together by country at international championships, and, in the case of cross country and road races, finishing positions or times of the top athletes from a team may be combined to declare a team victor.

Cross country running is the most naturalistic of the sports in athletics as competitions take place on open-air courses over surfaces such as grass, woodland trails, and earth. It is both an individual and team sport, as runners are judged on an individual basis and a points scoring method is used for teams. Competitions are typically long distance races of 3 km (1.9 mi) or more which are usually held in autumn and winter. Cross country's most successful athletes often compete in long-distance track and road events as well.

While cross country competitions are no longer held at the Olympics, having featured in the athletics programme from 1912 to 1924, it has been present as one of the events within the modern pentathlon competition since the 1912 Summer Olympics. One variation on traditional cross country is mountain running, which incorporates significant uphill and/or downhill sections as an additional challenge to the course. Fell running and Orienteering are other competitive sports similar to cross country, although they feature an element of navigation which is absent from the set courses of cross country.

Racewalking finds its roots in the sport of pedestrianism which emerged in the late 18th century in England. Spectators would gamble on the outcome of the walking competitions. The sport took on an endurance aspect and competitions were held over long distances or walkers would have to achieve a certain distance within a specified time frame, such as Centurion contests of walking 100 miles (160 km) within 24 hours.[32] During this period, racewalking was frequently held on athletics tracks for ease of measurement, and the 1908 Summer Olympics in London saw the introduction of the 3500-metre and 10-mile walks. Racewalking was briefly dropped from the Olympic programme in 1928, but the men's 50 kilometres race walk has been held at every Olympic Games but one since 1932. The men's 20 kilometres race walk was added to the Olympic athletics schedule in 1956 and the women's event was first held in 1992. The most common events in modern competition are over 10 km, 20 km and 50 km on roads, although women's 3 km and men's 5 km are held on indoor tracks.

The significant variation in people's abilities in the sport of athletics has led to the creation of numerous competitive categories, in order that athletes are pitted against rivals of a similar kind or ability, and to include groups of people who would otherwise not be competitive in open-to-all events. The eligibility of athletes for a given category is occasionally a source of controversy among the sport's participants, officials and spectators, with disputes typically being rooted in deliberate cheating in order to gain a competitive advantage or differing cultural perspectives over the eligibility of a category.

The foremost division of this kind is by sex[ling]: in athletics, men and women almost exclusively compete against people of the same sex. In contrast to the men's division, the development of the women's division has caused regular dispute in terms of eligibility. Several intersex athletes had success in the women's division in the early 20th century, such as Stanisława Walasiewicz and Mary Weston (later Mark), and the IAAF responded by introducing sex verification for all athletes in the women's category, beginning with the disqualification of sprinter Foekje Dillema in 1950 after she refused to be tested.[33] Olympic champion Ewa Kłobukowska became the first athlete to publicly fail the test in 1967 and the humiliation she suffered as a result of the announcement led to sex tests becoming a confidential process.[34] Hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño failed a test and was disqualified in 1985, but publicly fought the ban in court and was reinstated in 1988. In 1991, the IAAF replaced the sex chromatin test with general medical tests for athletes of all divisions, due to changes in ethical and scientific viewpoints.[35]

Age is a significant determiner of ability to compete in athletics, with athletic ability generally increasing through childhood and adolescence, peaking in early adulthood, then gradually declining from around the age of 30 onwards.[42][43] As a result, numerous age categories have been created to encourage younger and older athletes to engage in competition. At international level, there are three major categories for young athletes: under-23, under-20 (formerly junior), and under-18 (formerly youth). Beyond international rules, different youth categories are in use in the sport, often in the form of two-year or single age groupings.[44] Age categories are more extensive for older athletes and these are commonly organised under the umbrella of masters athletics, which has age groups spanning five years for all athletes aged 35 and above. There is no limit to the number of age groupings, hence Stanisław Kowalski holds a world record for men aged 105 years and over.[45] For competitions where age is not taken into account, this is known as senior or open class athletics; in international rules there remain some restrictions on younger people competing in endurance events for health reasons .[44]

Athletes with physical disabilities have competed at separate international events since 1952. The International Paralympic Committee governs the competitions in athletics, and hosts the Paralympic Games, which have continued since 1960.[17][18]

Operating independently of the Paralympic movement, deaf athletes have a long-established tradition of organised athletics, with the first major world competition being included at the 1924 Deaflympics.[53] The primary impediments to the inclusion of deaf athletes in mainstream athletics are sound based elements of the sport, such as the starter's pistol. This can be a disadvantage even in Paralympic sport, as shown in by the example of Olivia Breen who failed to hear a false start in a cerebral palsy class race at the 2012 Paralympics.[54]

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