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Throughout recorded sports history, athletics has always been practised. The first event contested in the ancient Olympic Games was the “stadium” race, a sprint of about 192 metres. Winners in this event have been recorded from as far back as 776 BC.
Much like today, the ancient Olympic Games included a wide variety of track and field events. Such events included longer foot races, a race in armour, and a pentathlon event that consisted of the “stadium” race, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw and wrestling.
Similar events were held in ancient Greece at the Isthmian, Nemean and Pythian Games. Throughout Europe, local fairs and festivals often included running, jumping and throwing events. In Ireland and Scotland, these developed into organised sets of Tailteann and Highland Games, respectively. There was also a tradition of “pedestrian” events – often with heavy betting involved – in the 18th and 19 centuries, especially in Great Britain, which normally involved walking or running races.
The modern format of athletics, in which a variety of running, jumping, throwing, walking and combined events are competed at a single “meeting” or “meet”, evolved in the late 19th century, when schools and military colleges began to incorporate sports and exercise as part of education programmes. The earliest recorded meeting dates back to 1840 in Shropshire, England, but specialised championships began to thrive in the 1880s in the USA, UK, and throughout Europe, as well as in other developed nations.
Since 1896, athletics has been on the programme of each edition of the Games of the Olympiad. Its presence on the Games programme has allowed its popularity to increase across the world. This popularity was also strengthened by the creation of the IAAF in 1912. Women’s events appeared for the first time at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, while the men’s programme was standardised as of the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. Although at the beginning women were authorised to participate in only some events, today their programme is almost identical to that of the men.
The 1960s saw a boom in athletics in developing countries, with the success of African runners and sprinters of Caribbean origin. Americans have for a long time reigned over men’s athletics, although European nations have also dominated. For the women, the Soviet Union and the GDR (East Germany) dominated the competitions before their dissolution.
More recently, high-level Asian athletes have risen up the ranks. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, athletes from 62 countries competed in the finals.