Who Invented Track and Field? – A Short History of the Sport

Like many of today’s action sports, track and field has its origins in the first Olympics in Greece. When you begin to investigate who invented track and field, you find that, again, like soccer, track and field disappeared during the “dark” ages, and reappeared with modern organization during the 1800’s.

Since they did not have jeeps and tanks and trucks in the ancient world, soldiers took pride in their athleticism. Running was one of the very first competitive sports, and it is a favorite of today’s games as well. There is some dispute as to exactly when the Olympic Games began, with a gap in guesses from 776 BC to as early as the ninth or tenth century BC.

There was a gap in the games as well, during the Middle Ages. In 1896, they were again held in Athens, as organizers tried to bring back the ancient tradition. One feature of these games was what is now known as a “marathon race”. It was called “marathon” to honor the run made by Pheidippides in 490 BC from the Greek city of Marathon to Sparta. He ran the entire day in order to warn fellow soldiers of Persian invasions at Marathon. That distance was about 149 miles; today’s races are about 26 miles, considerably shorter. When London hosted the 1908 Olympics, their “marathon” run was 26 miles 385 yards (42,195 kilometers), from starting point to the stadium.

So, if you want to consider who invented track and field, you might want to give that honor to Pheidippides. However, bronze tripods were discovered that pre-date his run, to the tenth century BC, that some believe may have been awards for earlier games at Olympia. Or, if you want to look at the more sophisticated development of track and field, consider the year 1849, in England, when the Royal Military Academy organized their first track and field meet. Perhaps they should receive credit for who invented track and field?

Ancient games eventually expanded to include more races, boxing, wrestling, and a pentathlon with five running, throwing, and jumping events. In the US, organized track and field events date from the 1860’s. Collegiate and amateur groups were formed here in 1873 and 1888 respectively. Organized sporting events for men grew with the first NCAA national championships in 1921. Women, who had only recently received suffrage in the US, were included in the games in 1928. Making history, in 1952, the Soviet Union sent its first teams to the Olympics. The fierce competition between the USSR and the USA ran for the duration of the Cold War, over the next 30 years. In standard Olympic tradition, wars are suspended for the duration to enable all countries to participate in peace.

Today, favorite events include multiple sport competitions in the Pentathlon (5 sports), Heptathlon (7), and Decathlon (10). The Athletics Congress (US), and the International Amateur Athletics Congress determine the sporting rules. Games are limited to amateurs; professional athletes cannot participate or they are banned.