Olympic Games History

Track & Field at the ancient and modern Olympics

1896 Olympic opening ceremony
The opening ceremony of the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896. Getty Images Sport

The ancient Olympics were the most famous of the four Pan-Hellenic Games of ancient Greece. They were held at Olympia, beginning in approximately 776 B.C. The Games were banned in 393 A.D. by the Roman Christian emperor Theodosius, who considered them pagan festivals.

The Olympics, held every four years, were celebrated as solemn religious festivals, complete with sacrifices to Greek gods. Truces were declared as Greek city-states were invited to send their best athletes to compete.

Track events included the stade race – the ancient version of a sprint – as participants ran from one end of the track to the other (approximately 200 meters). There was also a two-stade race (approximately 400 meters), as well as a long-distance run (ranging from seven to 24 stades).

Field events, which resembled their modern equivalents, included the long jump, discus, shot put and javelin. The five-sport pentathlon included wrestling along with the discus, javelin, long jump and a sprint.

Olympic Games also featured boxing, equestrian events and pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling.

Contrary to the spirit of gentlemanly amateurism that prevailed when the modern Olympic Games began, ancient Olympians prized victory highly. Olympic champions expected, and often received, great rewards from their home cities. Indeed, winners often lived the rest of their lives at public expense. As the Greek poet Pindar wrote, “For the rest of his life the victor enjoys a honey-sweet calm.”

Modern Olympics

The Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin was the driving force behind the modern Olympic Games, which were first held in Greece in 1896. Summer Games have been held every four years since, except during wartime in 1916, 1940 and 1944. With the relaxation of amateur-only rules, highly-paid athletes such as professional basketball players can now compete.

The Games of the XXI Olympiad were held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from Aug. 5-21, 2016. Men’s track and field events included:

  • 100-meter run
  • 200-meter run
  • 400-meter run
  • 800-meter run
  • 1500-meter run
  • 5000-meter run
  • 10,000-meter run
  • 110-meter hurdles
  • 400-meter hurdles
  • 3000-meter steeplechase
  • 4 x 100-meter relay
  • 4 x 400-meter relay
  • marathon
  • 20-kilometer race walk
  • 50-kilometer race walk
  • high jump
  • long jump
  • triple jump
  • pole vault
  • discus throw
  • shot put
  • javelin throw
  • hammer throw
  • decathlon

There is no women’s 50-kilometer race walk. Otherwise, women’s events are the same as men’s with two exceptions: Women run the 100-meter hurdles instead of the 110, and compete in the seven-event heptathlon rather than the ten-event decathlon.

Watch Now: History of the First Olympic Games