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Track & Field 101: Olympic history

Track & Field 101: Olympic history
Posted at 8:28 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 09:52:16-04

The roots of track and field, or athletics, may be traced back to the first ancient Olympic Games, held in 776 B.C. in the valley of Olympia on the southwestern coast of the Greek peninsula. The only event at those Games – the “stadion” – was a sprinting race of approximately 200 meters, or the length of the ancient Olympic stadium. Coroebus won the stadion in 776 B.C., and thus is history’s first Olympic champion. The ancient Olympic Games, held every four years, eventually grew to contain other athletics events such as the discus, javelin and the broad jump.

The marathon has its origins in the legend of the Greek soldier Pheidippides. Legend has it that in 490 B.C., following the Greeks’ victory over the Persian invaders in the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of the victory. Upon his arrival in Athens, Pheidippides called out, “Be joyful, we win!” and then collapsed and died of exhaustion. In commemoration of the messenger’s feat, a marathon race of 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) was held on the route from Marathon to Athens at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The official marathon distance was set at 42.195 km (26 miles and 385 yards) for the 1908 London Games. There are conflicting historical accounts as to why: some say it was so that the race would begin at Windsor Castle and finish directly in front of the royal box at Olympic Stadium, while other historians say the starting point was selected to ease crowd control.

After the end of the ancient Olympic Games (in about 393 A.D.), athletics competitions were rarely contested. The sport was revived sporadically in England between the 12th century and the 19th century. Cambridge and Oxford University contested the first university track meet in 1864, and in 1873 the first collegiate races in the U.S. were held. The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the international governing body of the sport, was founded in 1912, and in 2001 the name of the organization was changed to the International Association of Athletics Federations. In 2019, the name was changed again, and the organization is now known as World Athletics.

Rio 2016

Ethiopia's Almaz Ayana kicked things off on the first day of competition by breaking a nearly 23-year-old world record in the women's 10,000m by more than 14 seconds. American Michelle Carter won the United States its first ever Olympic title in the women's shot put, and her compatriot Dalilah Muhammad later did the same in the women's 400m hurdles. American Matthew Centrowitz's surprise 1500m win was USA's first in the event since 1908. Mo Farah of Great Britain defended both his 10,000m and 5000m crowns, a consecutive double only achieved by one other man in history, the great Lasse Viren. South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk from lane eight took down Michael Johnson's elusive 400m world record. Bahamian Shaunae Miller dove at the line to beat American superstar Allyson Felix in the women's 400m, though Felix would still earn her fifth and sixth career Olympic golds in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays to become track and field's most successful female Olympian in history. Kenya's David Rudisha, Croatia's Sandra Perkovic, USA's Christian Taylor and Ashton Eaton all defended their golds, respectively, in the men's 800m, women's discus, men's triple jump and decathlon. During the heats of the women's 5000m, a moment of sportsmanship swept the globe when after a devastating fall American Abbey D'Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin helped each other finish. Team USA swept the women's 100m hurdles, an Olympic first for the event. Jamaica's Elaine Thompson and Usain Bolt doubled in the 100m and 200m – for Bolt, the third consecutive Olympics he'd accomplished the feat. Bolt and Jamaica's win in the 4x100m relay, also a third consecutive victory, tied him with legends Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi for the most career Olympic track and field golds with nine.

London 2012

Usain Bolt completed the "double-triple," successfully defending his Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Allyson Felix also won three Olympic gold medals, including her first individual gold in the 200m after earning silver medals in 2004 and 2008. Great Britain's Mo Farah swept the 5000m and 10,000m races in front of his home fans. Kenya's David Rudisha lived up to his nickname, "King David," by breaking the 800m world record.

Beijing 2008

Usain Bolt of Jamaica broke three world records at the Games in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay, despite slowing down to celebrate in the 100m and running into a headwind in the 200m. Dawn Harper won gold in the 100m hurdles after her U.S. teammate, Lolo Jones, clipped the ninth hurdle and stumbled. Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva broke the world record in the pole vault to secure her second consecutive gold medal. Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru obliterated the Olympic record to claim the first gold medal for his country in the marathon.

Athens 2004

The U.S. men had their medal brooms out, racing to sweeps in both the 200m and 400m events. Justin Gatlin also claimed the gold medal for the U.S. in the 100m. In the women's sprints, young athletes that made their Olympic mark, as an 18-year-old Allyson Felix took silver in the 200m and 20-year-old Lauryn Williams earned silver in the 100m. Overall, the U.S. laid claim to 25 medals, the most since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj completed a rare distance double in the 1500m and 5000m.

Sydney 2000

Cathy Freeman was given the honor of lighting the Olympic Cauldron in the Opening Ceremony, and ten day later, she delivered a stirring victory in the 400m. It was Australia's first track and field gold medal since 1988. In her Olympic debut, Marion Jones of the United States claimed five medals, but she has since been stripped of her medals. U.S. sprinters won gold medals in the 100m with Maurice Greene and 400m with Michael Johnson.

Atlanta 1996

Michael Johnson set a world record in the 200m on his way to becoming the first man to own Olympic gold medals in the 200m and 400m. Veteran American athletes shined in Atlanta, as Carl Lewis won his fourth long jump title at the age of 35, and 34-year-old Jackie Joyner-Kersee claimed the bronze in the long jump to bring her Olympic medal tally to seven. U.S. decathlete Dan O'Brien, who failed to even qualify for Barcelona, managed to claim the gold in Atlanta. Russia's Svetlana Masterkova surprised the favorites by sweeping the 800m and 1500m. 

Barcelona 1992

For American sprinter Gail Devers, the Barcelona Games were marked by fulfillment and disappointment. She won a gold medal in the closest 100m finish in Olympic history, but five days later, she hit the final hurdle and tumbled across the finish line of the 100m hurdles in fifth. In the women's 10,000m, Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia became the first black African woman to win an Olympic medal. She celebrated by taking a victory lap, hand in hand, with Elana Meyer, a white South African.

Seoul 1988

The winner of the men's 100m, Ben Johnson of Canada, was disqualified after testing positive for anabolic steroids. The gold medal was then awarded to Carl Lewis, who also claimed gold in the long jump. American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner left Seoul with four Olympic medals, including gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.

Los Angeles 1984

As the Games returned to American soil for the first time since 1932, Carl Lewis of the United States matched Jesse Owens' performance at the 1936 Berlin Games by winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump. Two-time Boston Marathon winner Joan Benoit won the inaugural Olympic women's marathon. Prior to 1984, women never had competed in an Olympic race longer that 1500m. 

Moscow 1980

Perhaps the most anticipated showdown of the Moscow Games was between middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe of Great Britain. Going into the 800m, world-record holder Coe was the favorite, but Ovett edged him by 45-hundredths of a second to take gold. Six days later, Coe overcome the disappointment of that defeat by winning in the 1500m, upsetting the favored Ovett, who came away with bronze. The United States was one of the countries that boycotted the 1980 Games.

 

Montreal 1976

In the Montreal decathlon, Bruce Jenner continued America's string of success in the event, joining luminaries Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson as Olympic gold medalists. Also at the 1976 Games, Cuban Alberto Juantorena performed a remarkable feat of versatility, becoming the first man to complete the 400m-800m double.

Munich 1972

Yale University product Frank Shorter cruised to victory, becoming the first U.S. marathoner to win Olympic gold since 1908. In the Munich 5000m, American phenom Steve Prefontaine took the lead with a mile to go and held it until less than 600m remained. Prefontaine was passed by Viren, Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Ian Stewart of Great Britain — the latter just 10m from the finish line — and failed to medal.

Mexico City 1968

As "The Star-Spangled Banner" played and the U.S. flag was raised during the medal ceremony for the men's 200m in Mexico City, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both of the United States, bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved, clenched fists in a demonstration against racial injustice. American discus thrower Al Oerter became the first track and field athlete to win four gold medals in the same event. American high jumper Dick Fosbury claimed Olympic gold using a distinct technique, dubbed the "Fosbury Flop."

Tokyo 1964

American Billy Mills, who had never run the 10,000m in under 29 minutes, clocked a time of 28:24.4 to become the first and still only American to claim Olympic gold in the event. Fellow American Wyomia Tyus claimed the 100m gold medal by defeating her Tennessee State teammate, Edith McGuire. McGuire was also the 200m gold medalist.

Rome 1960

As a child, Wilma Rudolph suffered from polio, scarlet fever and pneumonia, and was unable to walk until she was 7. But at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the 20-year-old Tennessee native earned the title of  "Fastest Woman in the World" by winning the 100m. Rudolph also won gold in the 200m and 4x100m relay, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. In the decathlon, Rafer Johnson of the United States defeated C.K. Yang, his teammate at UCLA. 

Melbourne 1956

Dubbed the "Golden Girl" of the Melbourne Games, 18-year-old redhead Betty Cuthbert dazzled the home crowd by winning gold medals in the 100m and 200m, as well as the 4x100m relay. Eight years later at the Tokyo Games, the Australian claimed victory at 400m, becoming the only athlete, male or female, to own Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 400m.

Helsinki 1952

In an amazing display of physical and mental endurance, Czechoslovakian distance runner Emil Zatopek became the first and still only runner to sweep the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon at one Olympics. Known for the pained expression seemingly etched onto his face when he ran, Zatopek set Olympic records in the 5000m and 10,000m in Helsinki before entering – and winning – his first marathon.

London 1948

Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two, dominated the 1948 Games, winning the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay to become the first and still only woman to claim four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics. Just three months after taking up the decathlon, 17-year-old Bob Mathias became the youngest-ever men's Olympic track and field champion. Four years later in Helsinki, Mathias successfully defended his title.

Berlin 1936

Under the gaze of Adolph Hitler, who intended the Berlin Games to be a showcase of Aryan superiority, African-American Jesse Owens emerged as an Olympic hero. With a distinct, upright running style — "My foot is only a fraction of the time on the track," he once explained — Owens raced to victories in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. He also won the long jump as part of a four-gold effort.

Los Angeles 1932

Nicknamed "Babe" because she could hit a baseball like Babe Ruth, 21-year-old Texan Mildred Didrikson entered the Los Angeles Games qualified for five women's track and field events. But due to rules restricting female participation, she was only allowed to compete in three events. A natural-born, all-around athlete, Didrikson won two Olympic gold medals in the 80m hurdles and javelin, and a silver in the high jump, before going on to become one of the greatest female golfers of all time.

Amsterdam 1928

Despite the objections of some, including modern Games founder Baron de Coubertin and Pope Pius XI, women were allowed to compete in Olympic track and field events for the first time in Amsterdam. The women's program included the 100m, 800m and 4x100m relay, plus the high jump and discus. With a victory in the 100m, Betty Robinson, a 16-year-old high school student from Riverdale, Illinois, became the first woman to win an Olympic track and field title.

Paris 1924

Finland was a distance-running superpower in the 1920s and 1930s, as evidenced by its success at the 1924 Olympics. The most prolific of the "Flying Finns" was Paavo Nurmi, who won five gold medals in Paris to complement the two golds and one silver he earned four years earlier. Two of Nurmi's 1924 triumphs came in the 1500m and 5000m races held just an hour apart. Finnish officials keep Nurmi out of the 10,000m, which teammate Ville Ritola won in world record time en route to a six-medal output in Paris (four gold, two silver). Nurmi would go on to win the 10,000m in 1928, ultimately closing his Olympic career with nine gold medals.

Antwerp 1920

Runners from Great Britain took the top two spots on the medal stand for the men's 1500m, with Albert Hill winning the gold medal and Philip Baker claiming the silver. Baker, who would later adopt his wife's maiden name and become known as Philip Noel-Baker, went on to a distinguished career as a member of British Parliament and a staunch proponent of global disarmament, eventually earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959.

Stockholm 1912

Considered by many to be the greatest all-around athlete in history, Jim Thorpe dominated the pentathlon and decathlon competitions in Stockholm. The multi-event sweep inspired King Gustav V of Sweden to tell the gifted American, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." The reply: "Thanks, king." The following year, Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals when it was revealed he received $15 to play minor league baseball. Seven decades later, the International Olympic Committee reinstated Thorpe as Olympic champion.

 

London 1908

As a reported 100,000 spectators looked on, Italy's Dorando Pietri staggered into London's Olympic Stadium for the final 385 yards of the marathon. Pietri, delirious and exhausted, took a wrong turn onto the track, and collapsed. Race officials, despite the fact that their actions would result in disqualification for the Italian runner, rushed to his aid, helping him across the finish line. Although Pietri was denied the gold medal, he gained worldwide fame and became one of the most famous non-winners in Olympic history.

St. Louis 1904

The 1904 marathon is considered one of the strangest Olympic races ever. Among the entrants was a Cuban postman, Felix Carvajal, who hitchhiked to St. Louis after losing his money in a New Orleans crap game. He arrived at the start wearing street shoes and long pants, chatted with spectators mid-race, diverted from the course into an apple orchard and ultimately finished fourth. Another competitor was chased into a cornfield by two dogs. American Fred Lorz crossed the finish line first but was discovered to have hitched a ride for 11 miles. With his admitted practical joke resolved, Lorz's compatriot Thomas Hicks was crowned the official winner.

Paris 1900

With victories in the 60m, 110m hurdles, 200m hurdles and long jump at the Paris Games, American Alvin "Al" Kraenzlein set the still-standing record for most individual track and field titles in one Games. Using an unorthodox extended-leg style, he revolutionized hurdling, establishing the style used by future generations. Indiana's Ray Ewry, in the course of one afternoon, won three Olympic titles: the standing long jump, standing high jump and standing triple jump.

Athens 1896

To commemorate the legend of Pheidippides, the messenger who, in 490 B.C. supposedly ran from Marathon to Athens, heralding the Greek victory over the Persians, a 40-kilometer (24.9-mile) run was included on the first Olympic program. Spiridon Louis, a shepherd from outside of Athens, took the lead with four kilometers (2.5 miles) to go and entered the stadium first. To the elation of some 100,000 spectators, including Prince George and Prince Constantine of Greece, who ran alongside Louis as he crossed the finish line, Louis become the first Olympic marathon champion and a national hero.