Sport

Olympics guide: Athletics

Lots more thicky. Here's your Olympics guide to all things track and field. You're very welcome.

Athletes: 2000

Golds up for grabs: 47

Olympic presence: Men 1896–present; women 1928–present.

Olympic Format: 24 track events, 16 field events (4 jumping and 4 throwing for each gender), 5 road events (men’s and women’s marathons and 20km walks, men’s 50km walk), and 2 combined events (men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon).

Current Contenders: America has topped the athletics medals table in all but three of the 26 Modern Olympic Games and may well do it again in London. On the evidence of Beijing, however, their position is far from safe. Russia, Kenya and Jamaica each collected six golds in 2008, just one less than Team USA.

Past Champions: USA : 311 | USSR /Russia: 64 | Great Britain: 49 | Finland: 48

Watch it: Stadium (Track, field and combined events), London, finish at The Mall (Road events)

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(Images: Rex Features)

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics

    100 m

    The ultimate expression of human speed is run over a straight course. To save surveyors and building contractors from going nuts, international 100m courses are allowed to deviate by up to 2cm in length and to rise or fall up to 10cm between start and finish.

    At Olympic level, men usually complete the course in 43 to 46 strides and women in 47 to 52. A top male sprinter typically reaches a maximum speed of around 12 metres per second (26.8mph) between 60 and 70m into a race. The equivalent figures for women are about 11m/s (24.6mph) at 50–60 metres. During the acceleration phase, both sexes run about 4.6 strides per second.

    100m Olympic Records men: 9.69 sec, Usain Bolt ( Jamaica), Beijing 2008. women: 10.62 sec, Florence Griff ith Joyner (USA ), Seoul 1988.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 1

    200m

    The 200m is similar in distance to the ancient stade but is actually derived from the furlong (220 yards, one eighth of a mile). Throughout modern Olympic history, the event has been run on a 400m track with athletes going round a full bend, but prior to 1960 Americans competing in domestic competitions ran the 200m on straight tracks. Evidence accumulated before that date suggests that the technical demands of running around a bend add about one-third of a second to race times.

    The athletes are still going flat out – Usain Bolt’s world record time is almost exactly twice his equivalent in the 100M – but there is a noticeable decline in speed in the second half of the race.

    200m Olympic Records Men: 19.30, Usain Bolt ( Jamaica), Beijing 2008. Women: 21.34, Florence Griff ith Joyner (USA ) Seoul 1988

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 2

    400m

    The 400m makes demands on competitors that have led the IAAF to describe the event as an ‘endurance sprint’. Even the fittest athletes are incapable of running at top speed for more than 30–35 seconds before they start to suffer the effects of oxygen depletion. At this stage the body begins to respire anaerobically to make up the deficit, and the consequence is a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles. As anyone who has experienced a ‘stitch’ can testify, this is decidedly uncomfortable.

    Successful 400m runners therefore need to be cussed individuals with an ability to ignore pain. Needless to say, they must also be extremely quick. Once upon a time, top 400m runners could be divided into 200/400m and 400/800m specialists, the latter including the great Cuban Alberto Juantorena, who won both events at Montreal 1976, and the former Michael Johnson, who won both 200m and 400m at Atlanta 1996. It seemed inconceivable that either feat would be repeated, until it was revealed that Usain Bolt is considering a move up to 400m.

    400m Olympic Records Men: 43.49, Michael Johnson (USA ), Atlanta 1996. Women: 48.25, Marie-José Pérec (France) Atlanta 1996.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 3

    800m

    The shortest of the midd le distance races consists of two laps of the stadium. Competitors start off in lanes but ‘break’ after 100 metres. A bell is rung at the beginning of the final lap, as it is in all multi-lap races. At this point the pace picks up via a para- Pavlovian reaction which adds considerably to the drama.

    800m Olympic Records Men: 1:42.58, Vebjørn Rodal (Norway) Atlanta 1996. Women: 1:53.43, Nadezhda Olizarenko (USSR ) Moscow 1980.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 4

    1500m

    The ‘metric mile’ is the blue riband event of middle distance running. It demands greater stamina than the 800m but almost as much leg-speed – to compete at this level a male competitor needs to run consecutive laps in an average time of 55 seconds – plus an ability to gauge the precise moment to break out of the pack and hit the front. The 1500m and to a lesser extent the 800m are often rough races, with plenty of jostling and barging. Britain’s Steve Ovett used to create space for himself by shoving the runner in front with a straight arm. Competitors in big 1500m races have been known to come to blows.

    1500m Olympic Records Men: 3:32.07, Noah Ngeny (Kenya), Sydney 2000 Women: 3:53.96, Paula Ivan (Romania) Seoul 1988

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 5

    Steeplechase

    The steeplechase – which began as a form of Irish cross country in which participants raced between churches – is a muscle-sapping 3000m race with 28 hurdles and 7 water jumps. The obstacles are 36in high in men’s steeplechasing and 30in in women’s; they don’t collapse if you crash in to them, so some competitors deliberately land on the top of the fences to help themselves get over them. The water jump consists of a hurdle followed by an upward sloping pit of water 12 feet long. The further the athletes jump, the less wet they get, but they nearly always land with one foot in the water, on the upper part of the slope, to reduce the jarring.

    Steeplechase Olympic Records Men: 8:05.51 Julius Kariuku (Kenya) Seoul 1988. Women: 8:58.81, Gulnara Galkina (Russia) Beijing 2008.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 6

    5000m & 10,000m

    Long-distance running is like midd le distance running, only more so. It is extremely tactical, with the athletes either trying to break their opponents by building up unassailable leads or making damned sure they have something left in the tank for the last lap. Despite the energy-sapping earlier stages of these races, the last few hundred metres are often thrillingly fast.

    5,000m Olympic Records Men: 12:57.82, Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) Beijing 2008. Women: 14:40.79, Gabriela Szabo (Romania) Sydney 2000

    10,000m Olympic Records Men: 27:01.17, Kenenisa Bekle (Ethiopia) Beijing 2008. Women: 29:54.66 Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) Beijing 2008

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 7

    Marathon

    The marathon was devised as a headline-grabbing centrepiece for the Athens Olympics in 1896. It was inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who in 490bc supposedly ran 26 miles to Athens to deliver news of the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, only to drop dead of exhaustion. The standard distance was extended at the London Games in 1908 at the behest of the British royal family, who wanted the race to begin beneath the windows of the nursery at Windsor Castle and to finish opposite the royal box in White City Stadium, 26 miles and 385 yards away.

    Marathon runners obviously need great stamina. They also have to shift. The men’s world record time of 2:03:59 and the women’s 2:15:25 equate to 26 sub-five-minute miles in a row. Until the 1970s you could be a top-class male marathon runner on stamina alone, but it has since become the domain of men who can do a sub-four-minute mile, not just sub-five – and you now have to be able to sprint at the finish.

    Women’s marathon racing likewise. In the light of which, it’s no surprise that 10,000m runners often double up in the marathon, or move on to marathon when they’ve finished with the 10k – notably the sublime Haile Gebrselassie.

    Marathon Olympic Records Men: 2:06:32, Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) Beijing 2008. Women: 2:23:14 Naoko Takahashi (Japan) Sydney 2000.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 8

    Hurdles: 110m (men), 100m (women), 400m (men and women)

    All Olympic hurdles races consist of ten jumps. The women’s sprint is 100m, the men’s 110m. There are differences too in the height of the hurdles (1.067m in the men’s race, 0.8m in the women’s) and the distances from starting line to the first hurdle, one hurdle to another and the last hurdle to the finish.

    The hurdles used in the 400m races are lower – 0.914m and 0.762m for men and women respectively – but this time the course is laid out in the same way for both sexes: a 45m dash to the first obstacle, 35m between subsequent hurdles and a 40m sprint at the end.

    110m Hurdles Olympic Records Men: 12.91, Xiang Liu (China) Athens 2004. Women: 12.37, Joanna Hayes (USA ) Athens 2004

    400m Hurdles Olympic Records Men: 46.78, Kevin Young (USA ) Barcelona 1992. Women: 52.64, Melanie Walker ( Jamaica) Beijing 2008

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 9

    Relays: 4 x 100m, 4 x 400m

    Olympic teams are composed of each nation’s fastest runners, but speed alone is not enough: smooth handovers are essential to success. Exchanging a baton with a colleague without substantially reducing the speed of its progress is an art, and teams often come to grief under pressure. Batons must be passed within a transition zone which extends ten metres each side of the nominal distance of each leg. The recipient must start on the inside of the first line and time his or start so as to be going as fast as possible when the baton is handed over. They mustn’t go too fast however, or they will have to slow down dramatically to ensure that the handover occurs before they cross the front of the zone.

    The 4 x 100m is run in lanes staggered as for a regular 400m race. The first leg of the 4 x 400m is also run in lanes, which continue through the transition zone to a point 100 metres into the second leg. At this stage the runners break, seeking a good position on the inside of the track. The transition zones thereafter can look extremely chaotic, with the teams jostling for position along the nearside line of the zone and several athletes often taking off from much the same point at much the same time. Traditionally, the first leg of a relay is run by the second fastest member of a team, the second by the third fastest, the penultimate by the slowest and the final leg – the anchor leg – by the quickest.

    4 x 100m Relay Olympic Records Men: 37.10, Jamaica, Beijing 2008. Women: 41.60, East Germany, Moscow 1980.

    4 x 400m Relay Olympic Records Men: 2:55.74, USA , Barcelona 1992. Women: 3:15.17, Soviet Union, Seoul 1988.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 10

    High Jump

    Each contestant has a maximum of three attempts at every height, after which the bar is raised until only one jumper is left in the competition. In the case of a tie, the jumper with the fewest failures at the last cleared height prevails. If these are identical, the number of failures in the whole competition is taken into account and if all else fails there is a jump-off.

    Take-off point is crucial in the high jump. Too close to the bar and the jumper will clip it as they rise. Too far and they will hit it as they fall. The angle of approach is equally critical. Most top high jumpers arrive at an angle of 30–40 degrees. The aim is for the body to reach its highest point just as it reaches bar level, which is easier said than done. Prior to 1968, high jumpers typically crossed the bar facing downwards. After Dick Fosbury won the Mexico City event with his face pointing skywards, his revolutionary ‘flop’ technique became standard almost overnight.

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    High Jump Olympic Records Men: 2.39m, Charles Austin (USA ) Atlanta 1996. Women: 2.06, Yelena Slesarenko (Russia) Athens 2004

  • Olympics guide: Athletics 11

    Long Jump

    Success hinges on speed on the runway and translating it into forward motion through the air. This explains why many top sprinters – notably Carl Lewis and Marion Jones – have adapted quite easily to long jump. Take-off point is again critical. Competitors must take off from a point on or before a 20cm-wide board laid flush with the running track – ideally, the front foot leaves the ground a few millimetres from the forward edge. Foul jumps frequently occur and are verified by a slab of putty in front of the take-off board, which takes on an imprint of the foot of any jumper who goes over the line.

    Each jumper gets three attempts, then the eight with the longest jumps to date go through to the final, where they get another three goes. The longest jump of the day wins the competition.

    Long Jump Olympic Records Men: 8.90m, Bob Beamon (USA ) Mexico City 1968. Women: 7.40, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA ) Seoul 1988

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 12

    Triple Jump

    The rules and structure of the triple jump are much the same as those for the long jump. Smooth transitions between the hop, skip and jump are vital. In the hop phase, competitors must land on the foot with which they took off. They then take a giant step, landing on the opposite foot, before jumping in such a way as to land on two feet. As in long jumping, the distance of a jump is taken from the mark in the sand nearest to the launching board.

    Triple Jump Olympic Records Men: 18.09m, Kenny Harrison (USA ) Atlanta 1996. Women: 15.39, Françoise Mbango (Cameroo n) Beijing 2008

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 13

    Pole Vault

    The pole vault involves running down a track while holding one end of a long, flexible pole, planting the other end in a small box and using the energy of the unbending pole to climb as high as possible. Skilful exponents are able to push themselves upwards from the top of the pole just as it reaches a vertical position, which allows them to clear heights of 6m or more. The rules are much the same as in the high jump – three failures at a given height and you’re out.

    Pole Vault Olympic Records Men: 5.96m, Steven Hoo ker (USA ) Beijing 2008. Women: 5.05, Yelena Isinbayeva (Russia) Beijing 2008

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 14

    Discus

    Men use a 2kg discus 22cm in diameter, women a 1kg model, which explains why the women’s Olympic record is superior to the men’s – uniquely in Olympic sport. Competitors skip-spin across a 2.5m throwing circle, turning one and a half times, before using their momentum and the torsion generated by rapidly twisting their bodies to hurl the discus as far as possible. The optimum angle of release is around 35 degrees. For a throw to count, the discus must land within 20 degrees of a line projecting straight forward from the throwing circle.

    Discus Olympic Records Men: 69.89m, Virgilijus Alenka (Lithuania) Athens 2004. Women: 72.30m, Martina Helllmann (East Germany) Seoul 1988

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 15

    Shot Put

    The men’s shot put weighs 7.26kg and has a diameter of 110–130mm, while the women’s is 4kg and 95–110m across. The aim of the exercise is to launch the projectile solely by a rapid extension of the throwing arm, which initially cradles it under the thrower’s chin. Putters add oomph to their throws by moving rapidly across a 2.135m throwing circle and slamming the leading foot into a 10cm high stop board, thus setting up a Newtonian counter-reaction that adds energy to their puts. Some putters glide across the circle in a straight line, others spin once before releasing the metal ball.

    Shot Put Olympic Records Men: 22.47m, Ulf Timmerman (East Germany) Seoul 1988. Women: 22.41, Ilona Slupianek (East Germany) Moscow 1980

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 16

    Shot Put

    The men’s shot put weighs 7.26kg and has a diameter of 110–130mm, while the women’s is 4kg and 95–110m across. The aim of the exercise is to launch the projectile solely by a rapid extension of the throwing arm, which initially cradles it under the thrower’s chin. Putters add oomph to their throws by moving rapidly across a 2.135m throwing circle and slamming the leading foot into a 10cm high stop board, thus setting up a Newtonian counter-reaction that adds energy to their puts. Some putters glide across the circle in a straight line, others spin once before releasing the metal ball.

    Shot Put Olympic Records Men: 22.47m, Ulf Timmerman (East Germany) Seoul 1988. Women: 22.41, Ilona Slupianek (East Germany) Moscow 1980

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 17

    Hammer

    The hammer consists of a metal weight of the same mass and dimensions as the shot put attached to a wire 1.17 1.215m in length, with a grip at the far end. As with the shot, the throwing circle is 2.135m in diameter. Athletes rotate up to four times, using a heel-toe-heel footwork sequence, before launching the hammer. They wear gloves to prevent the handle from skinning their fingers.

    Of all the throwing events, the hammer offers the highest chance of mayhem. If a competitor releases the projectile prematurely, the protective cage that surrounds much of the throwing circle is likely to be demolished.

    Hammer Olympic Records Men: 84.80, Sergey Litvinov (USSR ) Seoul 1988. Women: 76.34, Oksana Menkova (Belarus) Athens 2004

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 18

    Walking: 20km walk (men & Women), 50km walk (men)

    Competitors must have one foot in contact with the ground at all times and the advancing leg must be straight from the moment it touches the ground to the point where it is in a vertical position. Several judges are on hand along the course to monitor the walkers and issue red cards if they infringe the rules. If a competitor receives three such cards (each judge can only issue one per athlete), he or she is disqualified.

    20km Walk Olympic Records Men: 1:18:59, Robert Korzeniowski (Poland) Sydney 2000. Women: 1:26:31, Olga Kaniskina (Russia) Beijing 2008.

    50km Walk Olympic Records Men: 3:37:09, Alex Schwazer (Italy) Beijing 2008.

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  • Olympics guide: Athletics 19

    Decathlon (men), Heptathlon (women)

    The men’s decathlon is held over two days. On day one the 100m, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400m are

    contested, while the 110m hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500m take place on day two, in that order. The women’s heptathlon also takes two days to complete. The order of events is 100m hurdles, shot put, high jump and 200m on the first day; long jump, javelin and 800m on the second.

    Competitors in both disciplines need to pace themselves carefully. It’s no good exhausting yourself in the 110m hurdles if you have to compete in the discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500m later in the day. As a consequence of the punishing schedules, performances tend to be more pedestrian than they would be if the events were more spread out. The top athletes aim for consistency and keeping the leader in their sights. Points are awarded for distances thrown and times registered, and the decathlete/ heptathlete who accumulates most points over the course of the competition is the winner.

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    Decathlon Olympic Record Men: 8893 points, Roman Šebrle (Czech Republic) Athens 2004. Heptathlon Olympic Record Women: 7291 points, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA ) Seoul 1988.

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