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22 Apr 2015
IOC News

Staying on track

Many of the greatest moments in Olympic history have taken place on the running track, and we all have our favourite memories, but have you ever stopped to consider the history of the actual surface?

You might be forgiven for taking the humble running track for granted, but in truth they have been evolving since the earliest races on record, just like the race distances themselves.

Modern tracks consist of a rubberised artificial running surface that provides a consistent surface in all weathers. They are based on cutting-edge technology, a far cry from the early running surfaces which variously comprised dirt, grass, sand or crushed cinders. This was certainly the case at the ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC, when a cook from the nearby city of Elis won the only running race, the stadion foot race, which involved athletes racing barefooted from one end of the stadium to the other on a sandy surface. Both the start and finish consisted of two simple straight lines scratched in the sand. From the fifth century BC onwards, permanent lines were constructed with stone slabs and athletes could place their feet in two parallel grooves in the slab.

The running track as we know it today took a major leap forward in the late 1950s when a combination of rubber and asphalt began to appear. An artificial warm-up facility was constructed ahead of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and such tracks subsequently grew in number in the 1960s.

These were slowly replaced by what was called a Tartan track, a polyurethane surface originally conceived for horse racing. The Mexico City Olympics in 1986 were the first Olympiad to use it.

In the late 80s, a more rubbery carpet was used. This surface, known as ‘Mondo’, was cut to size and tightly seamed together along the lane lines to offer a more consistent bounce and traction. It has been used ever since the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

©Getty Images

The Rio Olympics will feature Mondo in 2016 and athletes will once again benefit from enhanced shock absorption, optimised slip resistance, traction and durability. This is down to a combination of two layers, one a cushion backing, the other a more solid layer above, which are both created by a process called vulcanisation. This makes the surface more uniform, stronger and elastic. It also reduces the need for spikes to penetrate the running surface and, as a result, modern-day footwear boasts shorter spikes.

So, next time you watch the stars of the track in action, whether it’s sprinter or middle and long-distance runners, spare a few minutes to consider the ground beneath them. It has as much history as the races and events themselves.


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