Exploring the history of track and field

5 mins read
Katie McManemin (left) lead Women's Track and Field to an impressive second place finish. Photo Credit: Swarthmore Athletics

I was recently asked to weigh in on a debate among my fellow Willets residents about the validity of assigning the term “sport” to track and field competitions. Most were in favor, though there were still a few dissenters. Track and Field athletics not only deserves the classification of “sport” — but it arguably invented it. The origins and practice of running competitions span many cultures and eras, as well as being the unifying events of the Olympic games — from their creation in 776 B.C., when a cook named Coroebus won a sprint of roughly 200 meters, to the most recent games where Usain Bolt took the gold medal for an almost identical event. However, there is evidence of footraces and running competitions in the Western world long before the first Olympic games, as they appear in the Homeric tradition, like in the Odyssey. While the Olympic games originally just consisted of “track” events, by the fifth century B.C. the addition of the “field” aspect of the competition, — javelin, discus, and long jump, to name a few — was making its appearance.
Fast forward a few centuries and cross a few oceans, track and field in the U.S. dates roughly from the 1860s. The first collegiate races were held in 1873, and the first championships in 1888. Since it was considered and regulated exclusively as a sport for amateurs, early U.S. track athletes were prohibited from receiving any compensation for their racing or training. Jim Thorpe, who won the gold in the 1912 Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon, had his titles taken from him when his semi-pro baseball career was discovered (his medals were restored posthumously in the 1980s) The 1920s brought the rise of N.C.A.A. track competitions and women’s Olympic track events. Representation of women in track and field athletics was scarce, and female runners fought for popularity until the 1970s, when the sport as a whole gained attention and fans with unprecedented celerity. At this time, a professional track circuit was started, though it failed to stick around for more than a few years due to insufficient funds. Professional running in the United States has seen very limited success since its initiation. Outside of the Nike sponsorships that appear around the time of the Olympics, there have been very few true professional athletes in track and field as a whole. Ultimately track in the U.S. is a sport for amateurs, as it was intended to be from its conception in the late 1800s. Roger Bannister, a British runner who competed during the 1950s, is one of the most salient examples of how the sport has been dominated by amateurs. Bannister is best known for being the first person to finish a mile in under four minutes. This was a major milestone (no pun intended) for track athletes at this time. This incredible feat was accomplished at Iffley Road Track, where Bannister was studying at medical school — an incredible example of how track and field was a sport specifically inhabited by amateurs.
To parallel this narrative, track and field has also come to re-inherit its place as the centerpiece of the summer Olympic games since their revival shortly after track became recognized in the U.S. We dub the Olympic gold medalist on the decathlon, a track and field event, the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” According to archaeological and literary evidence, track and field started the practice of organized competitive sport, and it has earned the right to be celebrated and recognized as one of the most prominent sports to this day.
Though it is an extremely technique-heavy sport and certainly utilizes many forms of strategy, what track and field most showcases is pure athleticism. Running, jumping, and throwing brandish the athletic capabilities of the human body without being bogged down by plays and game regulations or being hindered by equipment. Thus, the argument could be made that track not only is a “sport,” but perhaps the truest sport we have.Exploring the history of track and field

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