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Track and Field


TRACK AND FIELD athletics in the United States had multiple origins in the early-to mid-nineteenth century. British models were most influential. Scottish immigrants formed Caledonian Clubs in many American cities, and through these the tradition of Highland Games (also called Caledonian Games) brought track and field competition to the East Coast through the mid-1870s. Boston, for example, held its first Highland Games in 1842. In 1849 English long-distance runners demonstrated their sport to large American crowds.

Another important thread, older and harder to trace, is the Native American running and games traditions. One of the first American runners to compel English athletes' notice was Louis "Deerfoot" Bennett, a Seneca Indian who ran in England in 1862, dressed for effect in wolfskin and a feathered headband.

Yet another venue for organized competition was county and state fairs.

As in England, social class distinguished the structures that contained and sponsored track and running events. Caledonian Club events tended to invite all comers, no matter what race or ethnicity. Other British imports, such as the races called "pedestrians," were often largely working-class events. One of the first American pedestrians was held in 1835 at the Union racetrack in New York. Runners competed to cover ten miles in less than an hour. (One out of nine entrants achieved this goal.) Another type of pedestrian was the "six day go as you please" staged in several cities in the mid-nineteenth century. These were endurance events characterized by betting and by the rough informality of that era's urban spectacles. One race in Boston in the mid-1880s was run indoors by contestants from a wide variety of social backgrounds who had coaches and stood to win some money. A final category was the women's walking contest, quite popular in the 1870s. Often lucrative for the winners, these marathon contests, involving thousands of quartermile track circuits per meet, disappeared in the 1880s and are barely remembered today. By the late-nineteenth century the other pedestrians had also shriveled because of widespread corruption and the increasing attraction of more elitist and "legitimate" competitions.

Collegiate and club track and running competitions eventually overwhelmed more populist events. For these athletes, amateur status was a badge of honor. In the 1880s and 1890s, the athletic club model caught on among American elites. These clubs varied from social clubs with fine athletic facilities to clubs primarily for amateur athletes, but in America's gilded age, most clubs developed membership policies defined by income and social prestige. The New York Athletic Club (NYAC) was founded in 1868, and the Boston Athletic Association in 1887. By the late nineteenth century, most American cities had amateur athletic clubs, and the international aspirations of the American clubs were captured in the first American-British meet held at Travers Island, New York, in June 1895, in which the NYAC hosted its London counterpart.

On the collegiate scene, perhaps due to their relative age and their links to elite preparatory schools with track programs and to the city athletic clubs, northeastern universities nurtured many outstanding amateur track and field athletes at the turn of the century. The growth of organized collegiate sports partly reflected middle-class concerns about the fate of rugged manliness in an urban, electrified world. The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletics was founded in 1876. By the 1880s, track and field events encompassed the 100-and 220-yard sprints, the quarter-, half-, and mile runs, hurdles, the broad jump, long jump, pole vault, shot put, 56-pound throw, and hammer throw, and sometimes the half-mile walk. (The marathon would be an Olympic addition.)

In 1896 a fourteen-man team sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association traveled to Athens for the first modern Olympic Games. The young Americans won nine of the twelve track and field events. By the 1912 games, United States track athletes had put the Olympics on their calendars and continued their impressive record of victories. The remarkable Carlisle Indian School graduate, Jim Thorpe, won both the pentathlon and decathlon.

The 1912 team also included several African American members, as had the 1908 team. The development of American track and field has reflected the evolution of various groups' access to social competition in general. Into the early twentieth century, American white men dominated the track and field events sponsored and fostered by the white athletic clubs and the white-dominated colleges. Yet African Americans competed in track and field from its American beginnings, largely through venues that paralleled those of white male athletes. Most black track athletes, as in baseball and other sports, functioned in segregated settings. The "colored" YMCAs nurtured athletic skills and organizational knowledge. American blacks also founded urban athletic clubs to foster recreation and competition; in fact, like whites of various ethnic and class groupings, African Americans fully participated in the club movement of the late nineteenth century. Limited community resources hampered these clubs, and members usually had to use public facilities for their activities. Black colleges, founded after the Civil War, offered a crucial staging ground for black athletes. After initial hesitation to commit their scarce resources to athletics, by the 1890s college administrators were backing a varsity movement. More public resources might have come their way through the Second Morrill Act of 1890, except that southern white state legislators diverted funds intended for black land-grant colleges to white uses.

Even in those years, the outstanding competitive skills of individual black men occasionally emerged. A few black athletes were able to participate in white-controlled events like the Highland Games. A few black students attended white colleges and universities, sometimes only after being required to graduate from a black college. These included outstanding athletes like Amherst's W. T. S. Jackson, the University of Pennsylvania's J. B. Taylor, Howard Smith, and Dewey Rogers, and Harvard's N. B. Marshall and Ted Cable (a graduate of Andover Academy). Other venues for blacks to compete against whites included the military, where black units could field competitors against white units' teams. American meets and teams contained increasing numbers of black American world-class athletes, including of course Jesse Owens, whose winning performance offered an ironic commentary on the Third Reich's racial philosophy in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

In the mid-1890s college women began testing their skill in track and field events. Vassar College held the first of forty-two consecutive women's field days in 1895. For thirty years, women track athletes strove against the physical educators' received wisdom, which echoed cultural repression of women's physical exertion on the grounds that women were incapable of extended exercise. In the early 1920s, track and field boomed as a sport for college women, then fell victim by the 1930s to social fears of the "mannish" and unnatural (read: "lesbian") female types who might thrive in sports so dependent on "masculine" strength and speed (rather than the grace and agility one could read into gymnastics, skating, and even tennis and golf, which had their own social cachet).

Colleges were not the only breeding ground for women (or men) track athletes. Though access to good tracks, coaches, and practice time made a difference in results, one could compete for relatively little money in events sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union and thus qualify for distinction. While the blight on female track athletics hit colleges first, non-collegiate athletes continued to compete and draw audiences into the 1930s. There was room in public regard for Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, who gained celebrity in the 1931 nationals by breaking the world's record for the 80-meter hurdles and achieved Olympic distinction in 1932. (In the longer run, her blunt speech and avoidance of dresses seemed to confirm stereotypes of women athletes.) Didrikson and many other non-collegiate women athletes were sponsored by industrial

leagues, part of the "welfare capitalism" movement of the 1920s.

As female participation in track and field became culturally complicated, black women emerged as the individuals able to withstand the stigma of speed, endurance, and strength to compete in national and international meets. Alice Coachman was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the high jump, in London in 1948. Wilma Rudolph won Americans' hearts with her Olympic performance in 1960, when she won three gold medals; and she was only one member of an Olympic women's squad dominated by black collegiate athletes. (The entire relay team was from Tennessee State University.) Since the 1960s a host of black American women athletes have starred on the world stage of Olympic competition, including Evelyn Ashford, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Gail Devers, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie JoynerKersee, Marion Jones, and Wyomia Tyus.

Black men have matched black women's track and field brilliance in the last fifty years. Again, a partial list includes Bob Beamon, Leroy Burrell, Milt Campbell, Lee Evans, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Edwin Moses, and Mike Powell. The bitter side of African American success is the continuing social and "scientific" conversation about whether there are physiological causes of black athletic domination. Besides linking to a long Euro-American history of slandering black Africans and their descendants as more animalistic and primitive than whites, this debate implies that blacks may have to work less hard and thus deserve less credit for their athletic achievements.

As with other sports, track and field's twentieth century has been characterized by both technical and technological developments contributing to progressively faster, longer, higher results. Technological improvements encompass the materials used in equipment, including shoes and clothing, as well as timing, starting, and measurement methods. There have also been illegitimate technological developments, notably the use of drugs, particularly anabolic steroids, to enhance physical development and performance.

Technical improvements include training regimes, nutritional knowledge, and research toward systematizing and enhancing the psychosocial aspects of training and competition.

The final major development has been the erosion of distinctions between amateur and professional athletic status. Endorsements and sponsorships from corporations and other organizations allow outstanding track athletes to enhance and extend their careers. Many other professional athletes may earn far more, but professionalization has contributed to the visibility and democratization of track and field.


Ashe, Arthur R., Jr. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete 1619–1918. Volume I. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Cahn, Susan K. Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Chalk, Ocania. Black College Sport. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976.

Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

McNab, Tom. The Complete Book of Trackand Field. New York: Exeter Books, 1980.

Rader, Benjamin G. American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Riess, Steven A. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Tricard, Louise Mead. American Women's Trackand Field: A History, 1895 through 1980. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996.


See alsoOlympic Games, American Participation in ; Sports .

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track and field athletics

track and field athletics, sports of foot racing, hurdling, jumping, vaulting, and throwing varied weights and objects. They are usually separated into two categories: track, the running and hurdling events; and field, the throwing, jumping, and vaulting events. "Meets" are traditionally conducted on an oval track that surrounds an infield for the field events; indoor meets may comprise all but a few of the field events.


Track events include the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,500-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter runs; the marathon race (26 mi 385 yd/42.19 km); the 100- (women), 110- (men) and 400-meter hurdles; the 400- and 1,600-meter relays; the 3,000-meter steeplechase (men); and the 20,000- and 50,000-meter (men) walks. Such British-system equivalents as the 100-yd dash and the mile run may also be part of a meet. Field events include the shot put; the hammer throw; the discus throw; the javelin toss (less frequently); the high jump; the long jump; the triple jump (formerly the running hop, skip, and jump); and the pole vault. The ten-event decathlon is the major composite event for men, and the Olympic winner is traditionally acclaimed as the "world's greatest athlete." The seven-event heptathlon (formerly the five-event pentathlon) is the women's major composite event.


Track and field athletics dominated the ancient Greek athletic festivals, and were also popular in Rome, but declined in the Middle Ages. In England they were revived sporadically between the 12th and 19th cent.; the first college meet occurred in 1864 between Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Track and field athletics in the United States dates from the 1860s. The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America, the nation's first national athletic group, held the first collegiate races in 1873, and in 1888 the Amateur Athletic Union (which governed the sport for nearly a century) held its first championships. The Athletics Congress now regulates the sport in the United States; the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) sanctions international competition. Track and field has been the centerpiece of the summer Olympic games since their revival in 1896. International professional running, initiated in the 1970s, has had limited success.

Record-setting Achievements and Illegal Drugs

Continuous, and often astonishing, improvement has characterized the sport in the 20th cent. Performances once considered unattainable, such as the 4-minute mile (first achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister, the 8-ft (2.44-m) high jump (achieved by Javier Sotomayor in 1993), and the 20-ft (6.1-m) pole vault (achieved in 1994 by Sergey Bubka) are especially well known. Since the 1970s, many have questioned whether some record-setting achievements have been produced with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs or other unsanctioned techniques. Testing of athletes has therefore become standard, and results have occasionally been nullified, as when Canada's Ben Johnson lost his world record and 1988 Olympic gold medal for the 100-m race after tests detected anabolic steroids in his system.


See R. L. Quercetani, A World History of Track and Field Athletics, 1864–1964 (1964); C. Nelson, Track and Field's Greatest Champions (1986).

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track and field

track and field • n. athletic events that take place on a running track and a nearby field; track events and field events.

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"track and field." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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