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track and field athletics

track and field athletics or athletics, sports of foot racing, hurdling, jumping, vaulting, and throwing varied weights and objects. They are usually separated into two categories: track, the running and hurdling events; and field, the throwing, jumping, and vaulting events. “Meets” are traditionally conducted on an oval track that surrounds an infield for the field events; indoor meets may comprise all but a few of the field events.


Track events include the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,500-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter runs; the marathon race (26 mi 385 yd/42.19 km); the 100- (women), 110- (men) and 400-meter hurdles; the 4×100- and 4×400-meter relays; the 3,000-meter steeplechase (men); and the 20,000- and 50,000-meter (men) walks. Other foot racing that is not strictly track includes road running, longer race walking, and cross country racing. Such British-system equivalents as the 100-yd dash and the mile run may also be part of a meet. Field events include the shot put; the hammer throw; the discus throw; the javelin toss (less frequently); the high jump; the long jump; the triple jump (formerly the running hop, skip, and jump); and the pole vault. The ten-event decathlon is the major composite event for men, and the Olympic winner is traditionally acclaimed as the “world's greatest athlete.” The seven-event heptathlon (formerly the five-event pentathlon) is the women's major composite event.


Track and field athletics dominated the ancient Greek athletic festivals, and were also popular in Rome, but declined in the Middle Ages. In England they were revived sporadically between the 12th and 19th cent.; the first college meet occurred in 1864 between Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Track and field athletics in the United States dates from the 1860s. The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America, the nation's first national athletic group, held the first collegiate races in 1873, and in 1888 the Amateur Athletic Union (which governed the sport for nearly a century) held its first championships. USA Track & Field, formerly (1979–92) the Athletics Congress, now regulates the sport in the United States; the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), formerly (1912–2001) the International Amateur Athletics Federation, sanctions international competition. Track and field has been the centerpiece of the summer Olympic games since their revival in 1896. International professional running, initiated in the 1970s, has had limited success.

Record-setting Achievements and Illegal Drugs

Continuous, and often astonishing, improvement characterized the sport in the 20th cent. Performances once considered unattainable, such as the 4-minute mile (first achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister, the 8-ft (2.44-m) high jump (achieved by Javier Sotomayor in 1993), and the 20-ft (6.1-m) pole vault (achieved in 1994 by Sergey Bubka) are especially well known. Since the 1970s, many have questioned whether some record-setting achievements have been produced with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs or other unsanctioned techniques. Testing of athletes has therefore become standard, and results have occasionally been nullified, as when Canada's Ben Johnson lost his world record and 1988 Olympic gold medal for the 100-m race after tests detected anabolic steroids in his system.


See R. L. Quercetani, A World History of Track and Field Athletics, 1864–1964 (1964); C. Nelson, Track and Field's Greatest Champions (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) The art of developing strength, agility, and other qualities through physical exercise. In modern physical training the term “athletics” is used only in the categories of light athletics and heavy athletics. However, athletics is a part of almost every sport in one form or another.

(2) A form of circus art that includes exercises demanding strength and agility. In the early 19th century circus performances began to include acts demonstrating feats of strength. In the USSR the genre of athletics has been used in the circus since the 1930’s. Athletic acts are built on the best achievements of Soviet sport. The greatest Soviet athletes include N. Zherebtsov, G. Novak, V. Khertsa, and the NeUpovich brothers.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a. track and field events
b. (as modifier): an athletics meeting
2. sports or exercises engaged in by athletes
3. the theory or practice of athletic activities and training
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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