The various disciplines that come under the umbrella of the sport of track and field are among the oldest of the world's athletic contests. Track and field is a North American term; these sports are better known in most of the world as athletics; the original athletes were those who competed in the events governed by the motto of the ancient Olympics, "higher, faster, stronger." The events staged in the venues of the equally historic Scottish Highland Games were conducted with the same simple goals and passions.
The Olympics Games have retained the most prominent connection with track and field competition of any sports event. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) revived the modern Olympic Games in 1896, the track and field events were the most prominent of the competitions. To be crowned an Olympic champion in any athletics discipline remains the most prestigious prize that a track and field athlete can capture. The gold medalist in the 100-m sprint or the decathlon at the Olympics is inevitably dubbed the World's Fastest Human, or the World's Greatest Athlete, respectively, each with considerable justification.
Track and field also enjoys international prominence by virtue of the biennial World Track and Field championships, as governed by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF). The IAAF also sponsor an annual world championship that is based on the participation of athletes in a Grand Prix competition circuit, with event venues primarily centered in Europe, where track and field competitions enjoy a considerably greater public following than is the norm in North America. Track and field on an international level has two seasons, the outdoor summer season where competition takes place in large outdoor stadiums, and the winter season, where the events are modified to accommodate the smaller confines of the indoor arenas.
National track and field championships are held in virtually every country of the world on an annual basis. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body for most college and university sports in the United States, sanctions an extensive series of yearly competitions, in both indoor and outdoor formats. With necessary modifications given the nature of athletes who compete in spite of physical or mental disabilities, track and field forms a very important part of both the Summer Paralympic Games, as well as the quadrennial Special Olympics competitions.
Track and field includes all of the events that are designed to take place either on the standard 400-m outdoor track, or on the track infield. The distances that define the Olympic and international track and field events have been calculated exclusively in metric measure since 1976, with the exception of the one-mile race. The disciplines that comprise track and field may be broadly grouped into the running, throwing, and jumping events.
The running events span a significant range of distances, ideal body types, and requisite training approaches. The sprints include the 100 m, 200 m, and 400 m races, as well as 110 m, 200 m, and 400 m hurdles. The sprint relays include the 4 × 100 m, and the 4 × 400 m races, where each runner of the team passes a baton to the next runner within a prescribed passing area on the track. Sprint racing is a combination of tremendous power, an ability to accelerate explosively, coupled with a smooth and efficient stride.
The middle distance events in track and field span the 800 m, the 1,500 m (often referred to as the metric mile), and the 5,000 m events. In these races, speed, especially as it is generated by the runner to deliver a closing "kick" over the final 200 m to 300 m of these races, is of significance. However, pure running speed is one of a combination of talents required of the middle distance runner. The nature of the distances to be run requires that the successful runner combine muscular strength and optimal weight, a proposition known as the strength to weight ratio. For this reason, middle distance runners are generally lighter with a more slender build than that of the powerful sprinters.
The only track and field race that is categorized as a long distance event is the 10,000 m competition. Marathon running is sometimes classed as a track event, as the marathon competition usually begins and ends at the 400-m track in an Olympic competition, with the balance of the race contested over the roads of the host city. The event that is a running event and yet an exception to the other track disciplines is the steeplechase, a 3,000-m race where the athletes are required to negotiate both hurdles and a water jump over the 7.5 lap course.
The various running disciplines of track and field are the subject of continuous changes in the training techniques used by the athletes. The constant refinements in technique lead to incremental improvements in performance. Some of the most notable scientific advances in sport have arisen in the context of track and field competition. As an example, in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, electronic timing was first used in track racing at the finish line, replacing the less reliable hand-held stop watch.
The most profound technical developments in track and field centered on the nature of the running
The throwing competitions in track and field share a number of similarities in both training approaches and the physical type in their respective successful athletes. The discus, the javelin, the shotput, and the hammer throw each place a significant premium on muscular strength and power. Each sport has relatively simple mechanics within which to deliver the requisite object; it is the honing of those mechanical features that ultimately determines competitive success in each of these sports. In simple terms, many athletes can become incredibly strong through weight training, but success in the throwing events comes with a combination of strength and a mastery of the footwork, weight shifts, and release points unique to each discipline.
The jumping events in track and field competition, the high jump, the long jump, the triple jump, and the pole vault, are the most dissimilar among the track and field groupings. While each of the sports requires jumping ability, the body types best suited to each sport and the training required to achieve success in each sport are quite distinct. The high jump, a test of vertical leaping ability and technique, and the long jump, a measure of the furthest horizontal leap, are as simple to perform as any sports that have ever existed. The triple jump, while similar to the long jump in its execution, requires greater attention to the mechanics of the "hop, skip, and jump" routine that is at the heart of a successful jump. The pole vault is the only track and field event where the athletes use an object to assist themselves in self-propulsion.
The pole manufactured for use in the pole vault is another example of sports science development. The first poles used in the Olympics by vaulters were made from bamboo or steel. The modern pole, manufactured from fiberglass and other composite plastics, permits the vaulter to transfer the energy in the speed of the run-up into the lift toward the bar when the pole is planted.
There are two track and field events that encompass the entire range of running, jumping, and throwing. The men's decathlon is a two-day, 10-event competition, including the 100 m, 400 m, 110-m hurdles, and the 1,500 m as its running events. The high jump, long jump, and the pole vault are the jumping events. The shotput, the javelin, and the discus are the decathlon field events. The seven-event women's heptathlon is also contested over two days, with the 100-m hurdles, the high jump, the shotput, and the 200-m race the events of day one; the long jump, the javelin, and the 80-m race are contested on the second day. Each of these competitions demands all-round athletic technical brilliance with strength, speed, and endurance.
Track and field at the highest level is the pursuit of excellence, usually measured by razor-thin margins of distance or time. It was the pursuit of those tiny advantages that led to the widespread use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by a wide range of track and field athletes. The publicity that surrounded the positive steroid test of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics served to make the steroid issue a far more important matter to both government and national sports governing bodies than had previously been the case. A large measure of the efforts of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its national representative agencies continues to be directed to track and field athletes.