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Des athlètes franchissent la ligne d'arrivée d'une course d'athlétisme.

Contested in the first ancient Olympic Games, athletics is the oldest sport on record, with the names of champions documented from as far back as 776 BC. The ancient Olympic Games included events such as running races and a pentathlon event that consisted of a running race, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw and wrestling. The first meets in modern times that can be likened to the athletics competitions we know today took place in 1840 in Shropshire, England. Other such championships began to thrive and spread in the 1880s, initially in England, the USA and Europe in particular. In 1912, the international federation that oversees international athletics competitions, the IAAF (now known as World Athletics) was set up.

Brief overview of the rules

As in the past, modern athletics is composed of a variety of running, jumping, throwing, walking and combined events. Due to its many categories and disciplines, athletics involves the most participants in a single sport at the Olympic Games.

The track programme includes sprints, middle-distance and long-distance events as well as hurdles, steeplechase races and relays for men and women. These events take place on the 400m oval track in the Olympic stadium (made up of two straights and two curved bends).

Two kinds of event are held on public roads – the marathon and race walking – which are both incredibly demanding and highly tactical, often leading to a variety of strategies with athletes sometimes even working together to defeat a rival. Spectators line the route to watch and cheer the athletes on.

The Olympic programme also includes two combined events – the seven-event women’s heptathlon and the ten-event men’s decathlon – contested over two days. The programme really puts athletes to the test across the whole range of athletics disciplines, following which the most complete athlete takes home the gold medal.

The disciplines are contested on, within and around the track in the Olympic stadium, in the jumping area (high jump and pole vault), the jumping pit (long jump and triple jump), the throwing circle (shot put, discus and hammer throw) and the javelin runway. Athletes compete one after another, and the event includes a qualifying stage during which the best athletes secure their place in the final. 

Olympic history

It was a logical choice to include athletics in the very first modern Olympics, back in 1896 at the very first Olympiad held in Athens. Its age-old position in the Olympic programme makes athletics the crown jewel of the summer Games and boosts its popularity. The men’s events have remained largely unchanged since the 1932 Los Angeles Games, with only the 20km walk added at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Women’s events appeared for the first time at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Women only had 17 events until 1992, and currently they compete in the same event as men since the incorporation of women’s 3000m steeplechase in 2008. Women also do not compete in 50km race road, which will be raced for the last time in the men’s events during the 2020 Tokyo Games. The 1960s saw a boom in athletics in developing countries, with the sport’s reach genuinely extending across the entire world. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, athletes from 62 countries competed in the finals.

Events in 2024

  • 100m (women’s / men’s)
  • 200m (women’s / men’s)
  • 400m (women’s / men’s)
  • 800m (women’s / men’s)
  • 1500m (women’s / men’s)
  • 5000m (women’s / men’s)
  • 10,000m (women’s / men’s)
  • 100m Hurdles (women’s)
  • 110m Hurdles (men’s)
  • 400m Hurdles (women’s / men’s)
  • 3000m Steeplechase (women’s / men’s)
  • 4 x 100m Relay (women’s / men’s)
  • 4 x 400m Relay (women’s / men’s / mixed)
  • High Jump (women’s / men’s)
  • Pole Vault (women’s / men’s)
  • Long Jump (women’s / men’s)
  • Triple Jump (women’s / men’s)
  • Shot Put (women’s / men’s)
  • Discus Throw (women’s / men’s)
  • Hammer Throw (women’s / men’s)
  • Javelin Throw (women’s / men’s)
  • Heptathlon (women’s)
  • Decathlon (men’s)
  • 20km Race Walk (women’s / men’s)
  • Marathon (women’s / men’s)

Venue in 2024

Pont d’Iéna
Stade de France

International organisation

International federation : World Athletics

© Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images