Track and field has roots in the animalistic nature of man, you could say. A subdivision of the sport Athletics, track and field is often said to have evolved from innate or natural human activity. Most events mimic predatory activities: Think spears, life-and-death chases, and assertions of dominance.
Formalized track and field was first recorded at the Ancient Olympic Games of 776 BC in Olympia, Greece. The single event contested was a footrace of roughly 200 yards called the stade or stadion, from which we get the word “stadium.”
The Ancient Olympics, deeply seeded in Greek mythology, commanded extensive cultural significance. Wars halted for the Games. Qualifiers swore oaths before Zeus, their highest god, that they had adequately prepared for competition. Poets wrote verse about each Olympic champion, and their deeds were chronicled for future generations. Eventually, though, the Games were abolished by early Christians in an effort to wipe out polytheism.
The Spirit Returns
Track and field didn’t exactly die out with the Olympics, but for the most part, international competition did. The 1896 revival of the Olympic Games, the premier display of track and field in the world, began the long journey of track and field back to international popularity.
Moreover, the Modern Olympics revived the Olympic spirit, embodied by track and field as a truly international sport.
For instance, after a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics in which Palestinian gunmen killed 11 Israeli athletes, it was unclear whether competition would continue. However, with support by IOC president Avery Brundage and a great majority of athletes and coaches, the Games persevered. It was felt that, in the words of Brundage, “The Games must go on.” These games not only set a precedent, but sent a message: The significance of the Olympics still, despite not-infrequent political exploitation, transcends politics, nationality, and even individual histories in favor of something universal.
In 1912, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), track and field’s first international governing body, was formed. Amateurism was firmly established as an Olympic ideal. That year, the winner of the first Olympic decathlon, American Jim Thorpe, was disqualified for having received $25 per week as a baseball player.
Expansion continued in 1921 with the first NCAA Track and Field championships. In 1928, women’s competition was introduced to the Olympics. Women’s events have been added sporadically to the Games ever since.
Early Track Stars
In 1936 Jesse Owens won a then-unprecedented four gold medals. He captured the 100 meter dash, 200 meter dash, long jump, and 4x100 meter relay. Owens was the first African-American to receive sponsorship in the form of a pair of Adidas shoes he received at the Games. Owens’ success in Berlin was all-the-louder because Adolf Hitler, who was attempting to use the Olympics as a platform for his racial politics, essentially ignored Owens’ dominant showing. Both the public and Olympic officials noticed Hitler’s non-action. He was told to either greet every medalist, or none at all. Hitler skipped the rest of the medal presentations. Owens became a worldwide star.
After the Games, Owens was presented with a number of lucrative commercial offers. Upon accepting, however, the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) revoked his amateur status, thus barring him from further international competition. The commercial offers were rescinded. Track and field athletes would continue to forego compensation for decades.
The next worldwide-head-turner to grace the track was Roger Bannister. Since July 17, 1945, Swede Gunder Hagg had held the world record in the mile. However, three men came to the spotlight in 1953: Australia’s John Landy, America’s Wes Santee, and England’s Roger Bannister. The trio had the audacity to intend to break the four-minute barrier for the first time — a feat many “experts” of the time (mostly sportswriters) deemed humanly impossible. Due perhaps to hype from these sportswriters and perhaps to the simplicity of the undertaking — four quarter-miles in one minute each — the race to sub-four garnered tremendous international attention. On May 6, 1954, Bannister won the race and captured the world record in 3:59.4.
Bannister received the inaugural “Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year” in 1954.
American discus-thrower Al Oerter was the first athlete to win gold at four consecutive Olympics. He also broke the world record four times officially and once, unofficially. More impressive still, his 1964 gold-winning throw, despite a neck brace treating chronic back problems and Novocain treating torn rib cartilage, was the first-ever 200-foot toss: 200 feet, 1 inch. Oerter was a star the likes of which the throwers of track and field have yet to eclipse.
Technology & Technique
Several technological advances contributed to track and field’s growing international status. In 1948, starting blocks and wind gauges were introduced, allowing faster sprints and more accurate standards of comparison. In the 1950s came the fiberglass pole for the pole vault. More importantly, the most impactful advancement of track and field to date surfaced: The all-weather track. First using a combination of rubber and asphalt, all-weather tracks replaced surfaces of grass, dirt, and cinder ash. The new surfaces gave way to faster times and higher levels of competition, even in wet conditions. The most common surfaces today are Tartan (polyurethane) and Mondo tracks, with the latter more prevalent in international competition.
New techniques changed track and field as well. Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic high jump champion, popularized the Fosbury Flop. The new jumping technique features a curved approach and making the clearance with the back to the bar. The Fosbury Flop remains the standard to this day. In 1951, American Parry O’Brien invented the glide technique for the shot put. Aleksandr Baryshnikov set a world record in 1976 in the same event with the new spin technique. Both the glide and spin techniques are still prevalent.
The End of Amateurism
Toward the end of the 1970s, amateurism in the United States was coming to a close. While many athletes competing in the European circuit had been paid under the table, conditions for athletes were poor, and many felt that administrators were living large while athletes lived in near-squalor. These feelings of unrest led to a split from the AAU, which was eventually replaced with USA Track and Field. In 1982, the IAAF dropped amateurism from both its name and practices, becoming the International Association of Athletics Federations (still IAAF). The way was cleared for added monetary incentive, and better performances as well.
Carl Lewis burst onto the international scene in the early 80s as amateurism ended. The American won nine Olympic gold medals and one silver over the span of three Olympics. He won 10 world championship medals. He was the first since Jesse Owens to win quadruple gold in a single Games. Lewis went undefeated in 65 consecutive long jumps and it took someone else setting a new world record to end his streak. Track and Field News named him “Athlete of the Year” three times in a row. Sports Illustrated and the IOC followed suit with “Olympian of the Century” and “Sportsman of the Century,” respectively.
However, Carl Lewis largely failed to secure athletic endorsement. Whether or not he was actually arrogant, he was viewed as such. Coca Cola rescinded an offer even after Lewis won four gold medals. Nike dropped him. Nonetheless, Lewis was one of track and field’s first huge international sporting icons. Being a pro in track and field was changing.
Pole-vaulter Sergey Bubka took professionalism in track and field to new heights. Bupka took Olympic gold only once, but broke the world record 35 times. Almost every time Bubka broke the world record, he broke his own record. Each time he did so, he received a large bonus from both the meet promoter and (until its dissolution) the Soviet Union. Knowing this, when Bubka broke his own record, he intentionally did so by only one centimeter at a time. Indeed, track and field had arrived as a money-making opportunity, at least for a select few.
Enter the East Africans
In 1960, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila (famously barefoot) won his first of two Olympic marathon golds, both in world record times. In 1980, Bikila’s countryman Miruts Yifter, nicknamed “Yifter the Shifter” for his revolutionarily fast finish, won his second and third Olympic gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races. The precedent set by these two men, along with track and field’s newfound earning potential, sparked a revolutionary change in the sport: The rise of East African distance runners. Each year, Kenyans and Ethiopians produce the overwhelming majority of top performances from the 800-meters up.
In 1994, Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie took his first of 27 world records from distances ranging from the 3,000 meters to the marathon. The margin by which “Geb” lowered major records like the 5,000 and 10,000 meter was unprecedented — 19.22 and 29.48 seconds over his career in the 5,000 and 10,000, respectively. Over the subsequent 12 years, those records have only been lowered some three and five seconds. Geb is still breaking records, most recently in the marathon, running 2:03:59 in 2008. The record before Geb? 2:04:55, by Kenya’s Paul Tergat.
Kenenisa Bekele took the baton of Ethiopian dominance from Gebrselassie. In addition to a slew of world records and four Olympic golds, Bekele set precedents for undefeated streaks — five years in World Cross Country, winning both the 4,000 and 12,000 meter races, and eight-plus years at 10,000 meters.
Performance Enhancing Drugs
Doping entered track and field on the coattails of increased earning potential. The type of drug has changed over the years. There was the anabolic steroid, burgeoning in the Hitler era, reaching a frenzy with the governmental doping regimes of the East Germans in the 80s, and morphing again into designer drugs like “The Clear” made to elude testing. There was Human Growth Hormone, erythropoietin (EPO), and its derivatives, like CERA. Dopers have always had to stay one step ahead of those trying to keep the sport clean. Among those caught in the crossfire between were gold medalists and track celebrities Marion Jones (sprints/jumps) and Rashid Ramzi (1,500m). Both were stripped of their medals.
In 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed by the IOC. WADA sets standards for controlled substances and testing in sport. The most aggressive, controversial tactic implemented is the “Whereabouts System,” in which top-level athletes are required to be available for no-notice drug tests one specified hour of each day.
Doping has also fostered skepticism in the sport. With each new remarkable performance, the question is now implicit: “Are drugs responsible?”
Usain Bolt has done many things for track and field. Alongside the three Olympic and three World Championship gold medals, with five of those six performances producing world record times, Bolt is a character. His popularity has reached beyond the realm of track and field. Bolt brought track and field to programs like ESPN’s SportsCenter. He was twice named “Laureus World Sportsman of the Year.” He’s shattered precedents for earning potential in the sport, securing appearance fees that before would have been considered ludicrous. And he’s done it all while cracking jokes to the camera on the starting line, and claiming that he ate nothing but chicken nuggets before winning his first gold medal.
While typically Bolt-caliber performances would yield nothing but skepticism and doping allegations, skepticism about him is met with a plethora of arguments why he’s clean. Track and field aficionados say: “It’s his biomechanics,” or “It’s his height.” People really want Bolt to be clean. He’s a guy who can not only electrify the world, but might just be doing it with the good, old-fashioned ideals of track and field. Bolt is not only heir to the title of track and field mega-star; he’s a beacon of hope.
Track and field lives or dies by its popularity, not just for fan-base and financial support, but in order to comb the gene pool for the next big star. New media offers expanding promotion. It’s now possible to watch medium-sized track meets across the country live from your computer, or chat with someone halfway around the world about pole-vault technique. That’s good for the sport, on every level.