Athletics (Track & Field) at the Olympics
Jesse Owens 1936 (credit: public domain)
Athletics is one of five sports that have been contested at every summer Olympic games since 1896. The others are: Cycling, Fencing, Gymnastics and Swimming. Of the men's track and field events, 12 men’s have been contested at all Games – 100 m, 400 m, 800 m, 1,500 m, 110 m hurdles, marathon, high jump, pole vault, long jump, triple jump, shot put, and discus throw. Of the women's events, four events have been contested at all Olympic Games – 100 m, 4 x 100 m relay, high jump, and discus throw.
More About Some Events
- The 100m Olympic sprint champion is hailed the fastest man on earth. This event has been on all Olympic Games programs and has provided many highlights. See more about the Olympic 100m.
- The marathon was originally conceived as a race for the 1896 Olympics in Athens, commemorating the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon. See more about the Olympic Marathon.
- The Decathlon has been included in the Olympic games since 1912. The decathlon comprises 10 different events, with points are awarded for each event with the overall winner having the most points. See more about the Olympic Decathlon.
- The first time an athletics relay race was held was in 1908. It was a Medley relay, consisting of 1600 metres being run by four athletes per team, the first two runners each ran 200 metres, the third runner ran 400m and the fourth ran 800m. The winning US team included African-American John Taylor, the first black athlete to have won a gold medal. The runners did not carry a baton as they do now, the transfers were by "touch" .
Some Notable Olympic Athletes
- The star of the 1912 Games in Stockholm was the American Indian Jim Thorpe, who won both the decathlon and pentathlon. However, in the following year it was discovered that he once played semi-professional baseball, and he was subsequently striped of his gold medals. In 1982, he was officially pardoned by the IOC, 29 years after his death. Replicas of his 1912 medals were presented to his family at the start of 1983.
- In Stockholm, 1912, Finland began its domination of long-distance running events, as Hannes Kolehmainen picked up three gold medals and a silver.
- Ralph Craig of the USA was 23 when he won gold medals in the 100m and 200m sprints in 1912. He returned to Olympic competition at the 1948 Olympics to compete in the yachting competition.
- In 1920, Distance runner Paavo Nurmi won three medals for Finland. In 1924, Paavo Nurmi won five gold medals. In 1928, Nurmi picked up three more medals, including one gold. In 1932, Nurmi was barred from the Games, on grounds that on a trip to a German athletics meet he had claimed too much money in travel expenses. In total he won 9 gold medals and 3 silver, ranking him the greatest track and field athlete ever at the Olympic Games (based on medals won). See more on the Greatest T&F Athletes at the Olympics.
- In 1920, Philip Noel-Baker of Great Britain won the silver in the 1500-meter dash. He later became the only Olympian ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Charley Paddock, the American sprinter who won the 100m in 1920, died in a plane crash in 1943 while serving as a captain in the US Marines.
- In 1932, American Mildred "Babe" Didriksen won medals in high jumping (silver), 80m hurdles (gold) and the javelin (gold). She is the only athlete to ever medal in all three events.
- A track and field star of the 1936 Games was Jesse Owens. The real name of the great USA sprinter was James Cleveland Owens. As a boy he was known as 'J.C.' because of his initials. That was until a new teacher mistaked the sound of J. C., and began calling him 'Jesse'. The name stuck.
- In 1948, Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, in the same events as Jesse Owens had twelve years earlier. She held the world records in the high jump and long jump, but did not compete in those, as rules prohibited women from competing in more than three individual events.
- Holland's "Fanny" Blankers-Koen won 4 gold medals in track and field at the 1948 London Games. Fanny was 30 years old and the mother of 2 at the time.
- Herb McKenley from Jamaica is the only man to have made the final round at the Olympics in all three sprints – 100, 200, and 400 (in 1948, 1952)
- In 1952, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia became the only man to win gold metals in the 5000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and the marathon in the same Olympiad. It was also his first attempt at the marathon.
- In 1956, the gold medal winning hammer thrower from America, Hal Connolly, won despite a physical disability - his left arm was inches shorter and much less developed that his right.
- The Olympic torchbearer for the 1956 Olympics was a virtually unknown 19 year old at the time he carried the torch into the stadium at Melbourne. Ron Clarke went on to become the world's finest distance runner in the 1960s.
- In Tokyo 1964, American Al Oerter won the discus throw for the third straight time, despite a cervical disc injury and torn rib cartilage.
- In Mexico City, 1968, Bob Beamon shattered the long-jump world record by more than 21 inches, Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high-jump with his back-first "Fosbury flop" technique, taking home the gold, and Al Oerter won the discus toss a fourth time.
- In 1968, on the winning podium after the 200-meter race, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute. The two were immediately suspended from the Games and deported from Mexico.
- In 1984, American Carl Lewis repeated Jesse Owens' 1936 feat, winning gold medals in the same four events. In 1992, Carl Lewis won two more gold medals, bringing his total to eight. In 1996, he got his ninth gold medal by winning the long jump.
- In 1988, Canadian Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis in the 100-meter dash with a world-record time of 9.79. Shortly thereafter, he tested positive for steroid use and was stripped of his medal.
- In 1988, Florence Griffith Joyner of America won four medals, three of them gold, in running events, while sister-in-law Jackie Joyner-Kersee won the long jump and heptathlon.
- In 1996, America's Michael Johnson won both the 200m and 400m races; Marie-José Perec from France did the same.
- In 2000, Michael Johnson defended his title in the 400m race.
- In 2000, American Marion Jones won five track medals, three of them gold.
- In 2008, Jamaican Usain Bolt became the first man to win gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m sprints. He repeated that effort in London 2012, becoming the first man ever to win six Olympic gold medals in sprinting.
- In 2012, South African Oscar Pistorius (aka the 'Blade Runner') became the first double amputee to take part in both the Olympics and Paralympics. He competed in the Olympic Games 400m and the 4 x 400 m relay races.
- In the 1900 long jump event, American Myer Prinstein finished 2nd despite not even showing up for the finals. He did not to participate in the finals on the Sunday due to his Christian beliefs, but his qualifying jumps from a previous day counted.
- See more information about the sport of Athletics.
- See more on the Greatest T&F Athletes at the Olympics.
- See also information about athletics at the Commonwealth Games.
- Running events were part of the ancient Olympic Games, as was javelin, discus and jumping events as part of the pentathlon.
- List of Olympic Sports