What is Olympic Distance Running?

David Rudisha led the 2012 Olympic 800-meter final from start to finish and set a world record of 1:40.91.
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Olympic middle- and long-distance races test the speed, strength, and stamina of the competitors in five different events, ranging from 800 meters to the marathon.

The Competition

The modern Olympic schedule features five distance-running events for both men and women:

  • 800-meter run
  • 1500-meter run
  • 5000-meter run
  • 10,000-meter run
  • Marathon

800-meter run: As in all distance races, runners begin from a standing start. Competitors must remain in their lanes until they pass through the first turn.

1500-meter run, 5000-meter run and 10,000-meter run: Under IAAF rules, in races of 1500 meters or longer run on a track, competitors are generally divided into two groups at the start, with approximately 65 percent of the runners on the regular, arced starting line and the remainder on a separate, arced starting line marked across the outer half of the track. The latter group must remain on the outer half of the track until they pass through the first turn.

Marathon: The marathon is 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) long and begins with a standing start.

Equipment and Venue

Olympic distance events are run on a track except for the marathon, which generally begins and ends at the Olympic stadium, with the remainder of the event run on nearby roads.

Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Athletes in the distance running events must typically achieve an Olympic qualifying time and must qualify for their nation’s Olympic team. However, some additional 800- and 1500-meter athletes may be invited by the IAAF, shortly before the Games begin, to ensure a sufficient number of entries. Marathoners may also qualify by posting high finishes at major races, or in a major marathon series, during the year preceding the Olympics. A maximum of three competitors per country may compete in any distance event. The qualification period for 800-, 1500- and 5000-meter events typically begins a little over a year before the Olympic Games. The 10,000-meter and marathon qualification periods start approximately 18 months before the Games begin.

Eight runners participate in the 800-meter Olympic final, 12 the 1500-meter final and 15 in the 5000-meter final. Depending on the number of entrants, Olympic distance events of fewer than 10,000 meters typically include one or two rounds of preliminary heats. The 10,000-meter and marathon events do not include preliminaries; all qualified runners compete in the final. In 2012, for example, 29 men and 22 women started their respective 10,000-meter Olympic finals. In the marathon, 118 women and 105 men began their respective events.

All distance races end when a runner’s torso (not the head, arm or leg) crosses the finish line.