What is athletics? Everything you need to know about track and field

From sprints to decathlons and heptathlons, athletics at the Olympics covers a wide range of running, throwing and walking in track and field events.
By Rahul Venkat

Athletics is one of the most-watched sporting events at every Olympic Games.

Eight-time gold-medallist Usain Bolt almost always lit up the track with his blistering pace, while the slow-burn 5000m and 10000m runs of four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah showcased the endurance of an athlete.

Blanka Vlasic displayed great flexibility at high jumps while Neeraj Chopra - seen as the next big star - is always eager to show his physical prowess while throwing the javelin at Tokyo 2020.

Athletics is a group of track and field events covering a wide variety of sports, with competitions featuring running, walking, jumping and throwing under different disciplines. 

Let’s have a look at what features at the Olympics.

Sprints (100m, 200m, 400m)

Often the most eye-catching events at the Olympics, the sprints involve a dash to the finish over distances of 100m, 200m and 400m.

Eight runners, all in different lanes, sprint to the finish line once the starting gun is sounded.

Hurdles (110m, 400m)

A format similar to the sprints over similar distances, except the runners have to jump over hurdles before they get to the finish line.

In the 110m, the hurdles are 107cm in height and can be knocked down even with the slightest touch. 

The first hurdle is placed 13.72m from the starting line while nine other hurdles are placed at a distance of 9.14m each, with participants having to run 14.02m from the last hurdle to the finish.

In the 400m, the hurdles are 91.4cm high (men) and 76.2cm (women) while the runners have to clear 10 evenly-spaced hurdles before the finish line.

Athletes have to clear 10 barriers in the 110m and 400m hurdles.
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Relays (4x100m, 4x400m)

Another category in the list of most popular events are the relay races - which consist of four runners from each country running equal distances with a baton in hand.

Each country generally picks runners who also take part in the sprint races but may also go for relay specialists.

Middle and Long distances (800m, 1500m, 5000m, 10000m, 3000m steeplechase)

The middle and long distance runners are athletes who are built similar to sprinters but have reserves of energy to unleash during the home stretch.

In the 800m, runners complete two laps of a 400m track. They have to follow their respective lanes until the first bend after which they can compete for the inside line, which is the shortest route to the finish line.

Runners make a standing start bunched together in the 1500m, and can immediately go for the inside line while completing three and three-quarters of a 400m track.

The 5000m participants start bunched up together and can compete for the inside line immediately as they complete 12-and-a-half laps of the 400m track. 

In the 10000m, runners can dive for the inside line from a bunched-up start and have to complete 25 laps of the 400m track.

The 3000m steeplechase is the standout event in this category. The participants start together and can go for the inside line as soon as the starting gun sounds and have to jump over 28 fixed hurdles and seven water hurdles while completing laps around the 400m track.

The 3000m steeplechase involves water hurdles in addition to regular hurdles.
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Race walks (20km, 50km)

While it sounds simple on paper, athletic race walking is actually a specialised event with walkers having to follow strict rules and techniques.

In the 20km race walk, walkers take part in a road course and have to keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times while walking. The advancing leg must also straighten from the point of contact with the ground and must remain straight until the body passes over it.

Three violations of the above rules during a race walk lead to disqualification.

The 50km race walk has all the same rules, except it is only held for men at the Olympics and world championships.

Marathon

The marathon is the longest running race at the Olympics, with marathoners completing a distance of 26 miles and 385 yards on a road course. 

Jumps (High Jump, Long Jump, Triple Jump, Pole Vault)

From the track and road races, we now go to the field events; starting with the four jumps.

The high jump involves participants taking a run-up and jumping as high as they can over a four-metre-long bar. Each competitor has three attempts per height that they choose to set and can also choose to move to a greater height without clearing the current one. Three consecutive failures to clear the bar will result in elimination.

In the pole vault, competitors sprint along a runway with a pole in hand and jam it down to launch themselves with the aim to clear a 4.5m long bar at the height they choose to set.

Each participant has three attempts per height and can move to a greater height without clearing the current one. However, three consecutive failures result in elimination.

In the long jump, participants sprint along a runway and launch themselves from a wooden board onto a sandpit, with the distance measured from the edge of the board to the first mark made by the athlete on the pit. If an athlete launches themself from beyond the board, a foul is called and the jump is not counted. 

In the qualifying rounds and final, each jumper has three attempts with the best attempt counted. The top eight jumpers in the final are given three further attempts to improve their efforts.

The triple jump involves three steps - the hop, step and jump. Participants sprint on a runway and launch themselves from the edge of a wooden board. They first land on their take-off foot (hop), then land their opposite foot (step) and finally jump into a sandpit, with the distance measured from the edge of the board to the first mark in the pit.

 The rest of the rules are similar to long jump.

Throws (Javelin, Discus, Hammer, Shot Put)

If the jumps test an athlete’s body flexibility, throws are the measure of their body strength, which is why most throwers have a bulky frame. All throwing events are pretty simple - competitors aim to throw their respective devices as far as possible within a range.

In the javelin throw, participants have to hold a metal-tipped javelin by the corded grip and take a run-up before throwing it from behind the foul line (or scratch line) and must do so over the upper part of their throwing arm, negating an underhand throw. 

The javelin must land tip first in a marked 29-degree sector. Men must choose a javelin weighing not less than 800g and measuring 2.6-2.7m in length while it is 600g and 2.2-2.3m respectively for the women. Competitors have six attempts to throw, and the farthest throw counts.

The discus throw is an event where participants take one-and-a-half spins before releasing a metal discus which weighs 2kg and has a diameter of 22cm (men) and 1kg and 18cm (women).

Competitors must throw from within a 2.5m diameter circle and the discus has to land inside a marked sector. They can throw six times during competition, and the farthest throw counts.

The hammer throw involves participants throwing a metal ball that’s attached to a grip through a steel wire. Athletes make three or four spins inside a 2.135m diameter circle before throwing the ball inside a 35-degree marked sector. 

Competitors can have six attempts, and the best throw counts. The ball must weigh 7.26kg for men and 4kg for women.

In the shot put, participants have to ‘put’ - not throw - a metal ball (same specifications as hammer throw, including participant circle) as far as possible.

The shot must not drop below the line of the athlete’s shoulders during any of the six attempts and should land inside a marked 35-degree sector.

Combined events (Heptathlon, Decathlon)

Finally, the two combined events - which consist of both track and field - are the heptathlon and decathlon. The heptathlon is contested by only women, while only men contest the decathlon.

The heptathlon is a seven-event contest, which awards points for each event to the participants and the one with the most points wins. 

The competitors contest the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200m on day 1 and compete in the long jump, javelin throw and 800m on day 2.

The decathlon by contrast is a 10-event contest. 

On day 1, the men compete in the 100m, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400m while on day 2, the events are 110m hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1500m.