Track and Field

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Track and field, or athletics as it is called in many countries, is the designation given to contests for men and women that involve running, jumping for height and distance, and throwing for distance using implements of standardized design. Competitions in track and field are called meets and are usually held outdoors, with the running events taking place on a portion of or around a 400-m (437.2-yd) or 440-yd (402.3-m) oval made out of cinders, clay, or synthetic compounds.

The field events those disciplines involving jumping and throwing generally take place at the same time as the running events, on the area within the track's circumference, or nearby.

Meets are held indoors during the winter months on smaller ovals, which vary from 5 to 12 laps to the mile in size. Races of differing lengths from those held outdoors are often run, and several of the field events that require a large space are not held. Indoor tracks are generally made of wood and are often banked to offset the sharp turns of the smaller ovals.

Separate but related sports are often considered to be part of the track and field family. Cross-country is a fall and winter activity for distance runners, with races of 3.2 19.3 km (2 12 mi) being run over pastoral terrain often golf courses in the United States and rugged farmland in other countries. Road running, especially of the marathon distance (26 mi 385 yd/42.2 km) is an increasingly popular activity, with races taking place over a measured course on city streets or country roads. Road races may be of any length, up to and beyond 160 km (99.4 mi). Long-distance walking events are usually held on road courses as well.

The outdoor track season is usually March to June in the United States and through September in Europe and Asia. The cross-country season is generally from September until early December in the United States, although in Europe meets are often held throughout the winter until the start of the outdoor track season. Indoor meets are held in the winter months, December through March. Road races are held throughout the year, regardless of weather conditions.

Track and field is one of the oldest of sports. Athletic contests were often held in conjunction with religious festivals, as with the Olympic Games of ancient Greece. For 11 centuries, starting in 776 B.C., these affairs for men only were enormously popular and prestigious events. The Romans continued the Olympic tradition until the time of the Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, who banned the Games in A.D. 394. During the Middle Ages, except for a short-lived revival in 12th-century England, organized track and field all but disappeared. The true development of track and field as a modern sport started in England during the 19th century. English public school and university students gave the sport impetus through their interclass meets, or meetings as they are still called in Britain, and in 1849 the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst held the first organized track and field meet of modern times.

Not until the 1860s, however, did the sport flourish. In 1866 the first English championships were held by the newly formed Amateur Athletic Club, which opened the competition to all "gentlemen amateurs" specifically, athletes who received no financial compensation for their efforts. This code has lasted to the present day and is the basis of the rules governing the sport. The Amateur Athletic Club gave way to the Amateur Athletic Association in 1880, which has conducted the annual national championships since that date. Although meets were held on the North American continent as early as 1839, track and field first gained popularity in the late 1860s, after the formation of the New York Athletic Club in 1868. The Amateur Athletic Union of the United States (AAU), an association of track and field clubs, was formed in 1887 and has governed the sport in the United States since then.

In 1896 the first modern Olympic Games were staged. Although initially of limited appeal, the Olympics captured the imagination of athletes and grew steadily, making track and field an international sport for the first time. In 1913 the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) was formed by representatives from 16 countries. The IAAF was charged with establishing standard rules for the sport, approving world records, and ensuring that the amateur code was adhered to; it continues to carry out these duties today.

The participation of women in track and field is a relatively recent development. In 1921 representatives from six countries formed an athletic federation for women, which merged with the IAAF in 1936. Participation by women has grown rapidly in many countries in recent years, particularly in the United States, where many schools have added women's track and field to their athletic programs.

Rules and Scoring
All races are started by the firing of a gun by an official at the starting line. For races up to and including one lap of an outdoor track, the runners must stay for the entire distance within lanes marked on the track. There may be six to eight lanes, with each lane usually measuring 1.2 m (4 ft) in width. The winner in each race is the runner whose torso first breaks the vertical plane of the finish line. Races are timed either by mechanical watches or by more sophisticated, electronic photo-timers that can measure finishes to the hundredth of a second. Sometimes, owing to the number of contestants in a competition, qualifying rounds, or heats, are held to narrow the contestants down to the fastest runners.

Athletes in the field events also have qualifying rounds. In the horizontal jumps and throws athletes are allowed three preliminary attempts if the field numbers more than eight participants. Then the best performers are allowed three more attempts. In the vertical jumps the high jump and pole vault the participants are allowed to continue until they have three successive failures. If two or more contestants tie, the competitor with the fewest failures at the last height cleared is the winner; if still tied, the total number of failures is the deciding factor; if a tie remains, the total number of jumps is considered. Scoring differs according to the meet. Many national competitions are scored on the basis of 10 points for first place, 8 for second, on down to 1 point for sixth. In international meets, the scoring is 5 for first place, 3 for second, 2 for third, and 1 for fourth. The team with the highest total wins.

For road races, cross-country meets, and walking competitions, the winner is given 1 point, the second-place finisher 2 points, and so on; the finish positions are totaled, and the team with the lowest score is the winner.

Track Events
The sprints are all-out efforts over the entire distance run. Outdoors the sprints are 100 440 yd (91.4 402.3 m) or the metric distances of 100, 200, and 400 m (109.3, 218.6, and 437.2 yd). Indoor sprints are often as short as 50 yd (45.7 m), or as long as 500 m (546.8 yd).

Sprinters use a crouch start in which, after being commanded to get "on your marks" by the starter, the contestant kneels with one knee on the ground and both hands resting behind the starting line. On the "get set" command, the sprinter raises the knee from the ground in anticipation of the gun. When it fires, the runner will accelerate as quickly as possible from the starting line. To facilitate a quick start by giving the runner something to push off against, devices known as starting blocks are used.

In the longer sprints 200 m and 220 yd,400 m and 440 yd the races are run in assigned lanes for the entire circumference of the track. To ensure fairness for all participants, the start is staggered so that runners farther out from the inside lane start farther ahead of the contestants to their left, who have a smaller circumference to run around; as a result all runners travel the same distance.

The middle distance races range from 800 to 2,000 m (874.4 to 2,187.2 yd), although by far the most popular of these events has been the mile (1.6 km); top runners often complete the mile in less than four minutes. Such is the popularity of the mile that it is the only event of English measure still recognized by the IAAF for record purposes. While the 880-yd (804.7-m), 2-mi (3.2-km), and other English distances are still run, only metric marks are now ratifiable as world records. In the middle distances, fatigue becomes an increasingly important factor, requiring the competitors to pace themselves so that they can finish the race in the shortest possible time; or, if the race is a tactical one, to be able to summon a sprint at the end in order to defeat the other contestants.

The long distances range from 3,000 to 30,000 m (1.9 to 18.6 mi) and the marathon. Also recognized by the IAAF is the one-hour run, in which the participants run as far as they can within one hour's time. As with the middle distances the longer the race the less decisive is the inherent speed of the various competitors. Rather, the endurance fitness of the athletes and their use of various strategies play a more important role. A distance runner with less natural speed than his or her rivals may speed up the pace in the middle of a race in order to break away from and thus disconcert the other runners.

Besides the distance races on the track, which usually are no farther than 10,000 m (6.2 mi), many of the longer races are run on the roads. Because of the varying venues and conditions, no world records are kept by the IAAF for these road races. Similarly, no records are kept for cross-country races, which, at the international level, are often 12,000 m (7.4 mi). Perhaps the most unusual of the distance track events is the 3,000-m (1.9-mi) steeplechase, in which the contestants must negotiate 28 sturdy wooden barriers and 7 water jumps. Race walking is fast walking with the stipulation that the walker must maintain unbroken contact with the ground and lock the knee for an instant while the foot is on the ground.

The hurdle races require an athlete to possess the speed of a sprinter and the ability to clear 10 barriers 106.7 cm (42 in) high in the men's 110-m (120.3-yd) hurdles, and 10 barriers of 91.4 cm (36 in) in the 400-m hurdles. In the United States, equivalent distances of 120 yd (109.7 m) and 440 yd (402.3 m) are sometimes run. Women race over 100 m and 8 barriers 84 cm (33 in) high. In both men's and women's races, no penalty is assessed for knocking down hurdles, unless done deliberately with the hand. The rear leg or foot may not trail alongside the hurdle, but must be drawn over the top.

In the relay races teams of four athletes run separate distances, or legs. They exchange a hollow tube called a baton within designated exchange zones. The most common relay events are the 4 x 100-m (109.3-yd) relay and the 4 x 400-m (437.2-yd) relay. Relay meets are particularly popular in the United States, owing in part to the American school system, which has traditionally placed emphasis on interscholastic team competition.

Field Events
Competitors in the high jump attempt to clear a crossbar. The contestant may make the takeoff for the high jump using only one foot, not two. Over the past half-century jumping styles have changed dramatically, from the "scissors" technique, to the "straddle," to the now-predominant "Fosbury flop." In the scissors the competitor kept the body upright over the bar. In the straddle, still used by some, the athlete approaches the bar and kicks the lead leg upward, then contours the body over the bar, facedown. The flop was popularized by Dick Fosbury, an American who developed the style and used it to win the 1968 Olympic gold medal. The athlete approaches the bar almost straight on, then twists his or her body so that the back is facing the bar before landing in the pit. These landing areas, which at one time were recesses filled with sawdust, are now well-padded foam-rubber mats.

In the pole vault, as in the high jump, the object is for the athlete to pass over a bar without knocking it off, in this case with the aid of a pole. In the vault, too, a foam-rubber pit is employed to break the athlete's fall. Because the IAAF rules place no restrictions on the composition of the pole, it has undergone dramatic changes as new materials have become available. Bamboo and heavy metal models have given way to the fiberglass pole, which has a high degree of flexibility and allows the athlete adept in its use to catapult over the bar. Most vaulters use an approach run of approximately 40 m (131 ft) while carrying the pole nearly parallel to the ground. The athlete then plants the pole in a sunken box, which is positioned immediately in front of the pit, and rides the pole during the catapulting phase, before twisting the body facedown to the bar and arcing over while releasing the pole.

In the long jump, or broad jump, as it was once called, the contestants run at full speed down a cinder or synthetic runway to a takeoff board. This board marks the point where the athlete must leave the ground. He or she may step on the board but must not allow any portion of the foot to go over it; otherwise, he or she is charged with a foul, and the jump is invalidated. After a legal jump the contestant's mark is measured from the front edge of the takeoff board to the nearest point of contact in the sand-filled pit.

The triple jump requires its contestants to hop, step, and jump into the pit. When the athlete reaches the board, he or she takes off and lands on the same foot; then, while attempting to maintain momentum, the athlete takes an exaggerated step, landing on the opposite foot, and then continues into the pit with a third jump, landing with both feet.

In the shot put, as in the other throwing events, the competitors perform from a circular base constructed of concrete or synthetic material. The shot circle is 7 ft (2.1 m) in diameter and has a toeboard at the front of it. In the "O'Brien" technique, the most popular style, the athlete is positioned at the back of the ring, with the 16-lb (7.26-kg) metal ball 8 lb 13 oz (4 kg) for women tucked under the chin. The contestant then crouches low on one foot and with the back to the toeboard thrusts to the front of the ring. As the shotputter reaches the toeboard, the body must be torqued in order to provide the impulse to shove the shot forward. The athlete may touch but not go beyond or touch the top of the toeboard.

The discus throw employs a platelike implement weighing 2 kg (4 lb 6.55 oz) for men and 1 kg (2 lb 3.27 oz) for women. It is one of the oldest of events; it was popular in the ancient Greek Olympics. The thrower enters a ring 2.5 m (8 ft 2.5 in) in diameter and takes up a position at the back. The athlete rests the discus usually made of wood, with a metal rim in the throwing hand. He or she then makes one-and-a-half quick turns and releases the discus at shoulder level.

The implement used in the hammer throw is a metal ball similar to the shot but with a 3-ft 11.75-in-long (1.21-m) steel wire and handle attached. The entire hammer weighs 16 lb (7.26 kg). The athlete grips the handle of the hammer with both hands, turns several times in the circle, and attempts to release at the moment of maximum centrifugal force. Indoors, a shorthandled version, weighing 35 lb (15.9 kg), is used.

The javelin is a spearlike shaft of wood or metal at least 260 cm (8 ft 6.62 in) long for men and 220 cm (7 ft 2.61 in) for women, with a metal tip at one end and a grip bound around the shaft at the approximate center of gravity. After a short but rapid approach run, the 800-g (1 lb 12.2-oz) javelin 600 g (1 lb 5.16 oz) for women is thrown overhand. The javelin point must come down first for the throw to be legal.

Often held at major track meets are the decathlon for men and the heptathlon for women (formerly the pentathlon), events that test all-around capabilities.

Tom Jordan

Bibliography: Archdeacon, H. C., and Ellsworth, Ken, eds., Track Cyclopedia, 10th ed. (1985); Ashe, Arthur R., Jr., A Hard Road to Glory Track and Field (1994); Carr, Gerry A., Fundamentals of Track and Field, 2d ed. (1999); Ecker, Tom, Basic Track and Field Biomechanics, 2d ed. (1996); Rosen, Mel and Karen, Sports Illustrated Track (1993).

  • Subjects:
    Ancient Civilizations, Sports

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