From early origins to the 1930s


The Steeplechase - 1862


3800BC  Earliest known references to organised athletics competitions, running races between two pillars approximately 800m apart and held in the Egypt at Memphis.

2650BC  Earliest representation of a runner, a stone relief in the pyramid temple at Saqqara in Egypt.

776BC  The first ancient Olympic Games. Koroibos of Elis was the first recorded Olympic champion, winning the ‘stadion’ race of approximately 185m.

324BC  First indoor athletics competitions recorded, held in two large marquee tents erected in India by two generals of Alexander the Great.

393AD  Olympic Games abolished by decree of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.

1530  First recorded international athletics match, between England and Scotland.

1604  Robert Dover starts the ‘Cotswold Olympic Games’ in England, which continue annually until 1852.

1766  Site of the ancient Olympic Games rediscovered at Olympia.

1793  Gymnastik für die Jugend  by Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths is published in Germany. One of the first books to give details of athletics techniques.

1796  L'Olympiade de la République was first held in Paris, France, including running events. It is notable for being the first competition where metric distances are used.

1809  Captain Robert Barclay Allardice (GBR) walks 1000 miles in 1000 hours.

1819  First organised cross country competition, a ‘hare and hounds’ paperchase, at the Shrewsbury School in England.

1837  First ever specific athletics track laid, at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London.

1839  First athletics meeting in North America, at Caer Howell grounds near Toronto, Canada.

1850  The Much Wenlock Olympic Games are staged for the first time, including five athletics events.

1863 The first ever indoor athletics meeting is staged in Ashburnham Hall, London, with four running events and the triple jump.

1866  First national championships (English) staged at Beaufort House, London.

1868  First indoor athletics meetings staged in the USA.

1876  A starting gun is used for the first time, previously races were started in a variety of ways including shouting ‘Go’ or dropping a white handkerchief.

1880  The Amateur Athletic Association was established in England in 1880 as the first national federation in the world.

1893  Batons are first used in relay races.

1895  First women’s athletics meeting held at Vasser College, New York.

1896  The first Olympic Games of the modern era are held in Athens with 63 athletes from nine nations contesting 12 athletics events. USA’s James Connolly, the winner of the triple jump, was the first Olympic athletics gold medallist of the modern era.

1898  First international cross country race, between England and France.

1900  The Olympic Games in Paris sees Alvin Kraenzlein (USA) win the 60m, 110m hurdles, 200m hurdles and long jump. He is still the only winner of four individual events at a Games.

1903  The first International Cross Country Championships

1904  The third Olympic Games are held in St Louis, USA. Ray Ewry (USA) defends all three of his standing jump titles from Paris while Archie Hahn (USA) is victorious in the 60m, 100m and 200m.

1906  Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens.

1908  The Olympic Games in London, with the marathon – famous for the collapse of Dorando Pietri – raced over what was later to become the standard distance of 42.195km (26 miles 385 yards). The number of competitors is a record 431 from 20 different countries, including Russia for the first time.

1911  The Swedish athletics enthusiasts Johannes Sigfrid Edström and Leopold Englund send written invitations around the world for an international athletics congress to be held in Stockholm in conjunction with the forthcoming Olympic Games, in order to decide rules, register records, and define ‘amateur’ for international purposes.

1912  George Horine (USA) becomes the first high jumper to clear 2.00m and the first to set a world record with the Western Roll technique. 

1912  The Olympic Games are staged in Stockholm, with the 30 athletics events contested by 534 men from 26 countries. The pentathlon and decathlon are both won by Jim Thorpe (USA) with world record scores. Hannes Kolehmainen, the first of the ‘Flying Finns” sets a 5000m world record of 14:36.6 and wins two further golds in the 10,000m and individual cross country race.

1912  The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) is founded with 17 members at the Sveriges Riksdag (Parliament House) Stockholm at 1700 on 17 July. The founding members are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain Greece, Hungary, Norway, Russia, Sweden and USA.

1913  The second IAAF Congress sees the formation of the first IAAF Council and confirmation of the title International Amateur Athletic Federation. Johannes Sigfrid Edström (SWE) is elected as first IAAF President.

1914  The first technical rules and the first list of world records (53 track, 30 walking and 12 field events, all for men) are presented at third IAAF Congress in Lyon, France. It is agreed that athletes committing three false starts are to be disqualified, with distance penalties on the first and second offences.

1915  The second Far Eastern Championship Games – including, for the first time, athletics – are staged in Shanghai.

1917  The first road relay race or Ekiden is staged across three days between Kyoto and Tokyo.

1918  The South American Athletics Confederation – Confederación Sudamericana de Atletismo or ‘ConSudAtle’ – is formed in Buenos Aires, with founding members Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

1919  The First official South American Championships (for men only) are staged in Montevideo, with Chile winning the overall team prize.

1919  At the South German Championships in Frankfurt, Maria Kiessling becomes the first woman to run 100m in less than 13 seconds with 12.8.

1920  At the Antwerp Olympic Games, a steeplechase race is contested for the first time and tug-of-war for the last. Topping the medal table with nine golds are both USA and Finland, for whom Paavo Nurmi wins his first three Olympic titles.

1921  Foundation of Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI, the International Women’s Sports Federation) with six member countries – Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and USA – and Alice Milliat (FRA) as President.

1921  The Women's Olympiad, the first international women's multi-sport event, is staged in Monaco with 10 athletics events alongside four other sports and attended by 100 participants from five nations.

1922  The first FSFI Women’s World Games – to compensate for the lack of women’s sports at the Olympics – are staged on a single day in Paris. They are then held every four years until 1934.

1924  The IAAF amend its constitution to include women’s athletics and the IAAF Women’s Committee is formed.

1924  At the Paris Olympic Games, Paavo Nurmi (FIN) wins five gold medals; the 1500m and 5000m (within 90 minutes), cross country individual and team, and the 3000m team race.

1925  Future IAAF President Adriaan Paulen sets the first world record, over 500m, at the famous Bislett Stadium in Kristiania (later know as Oslo).

1926  Changeover zones are introduced for relay races.

1926  The first Central American and Caribbean Games are staged in Mexico City featuring athletes from three countries, Cuba, Guatemala and Mexico.

1926  The second FSFI Championships is staged in Gothenburg, involving eight countries. It is re-named World Women’s Games after the International Olympic Committee agreed to hold women’s events at the next Olympics.

1926  The first record of a woman completing a marathon race with Violet Piercy (GBR) running from Windsor to Battersea in 3:40:22.

1927  Americans George Bresnahan and William Tuttle invent adjustable starting blocks, patenting the design as a ‘foot support’ and which allows the foot to be braced.

1927  The first official list of women’s world records is issued by the FSFI.

1928  The Olympic Games are staged in Amsterdam, including five women’s athletics events where the first ever female champion is Polish discus thrower Halina Konopacka. The Algerian-born Ahmed Boughèra El Ouafi (FRA) becomes the first African Olympic champion with his victory in the marathon while Mikio Oda (JPN) wins his country’s first athletics gold medal when he takes the triple jump title.

1928  Athletics become the first sport to outlaw doping when the IAAF Congress agrees on the first rule prohibiting: “the use of any stimulant not normally employed to increase the power of action in athletic competition above the average;” adding “Any person knowingly acting or assisting as explained above shall be excluded from any place where these rules are in force or, if he is a competitor, be suspended for a time or otherwise from further participation in amateur athletics under the jurisdiction of this Federation.”

1928  The present definition of race walking as “progression by steps so taken that unbroken contact with the ground is maintained” is accepted by the IAAF Congress.

1930  The First British Empire Games are staged in Hamilton, Canada, with England topping the medal table including two golds in the men’s hurdles by future IAAF President David (later Lord) Burghley.

1931  The first ever International Cross Country Championships for women (albeit unofficial) are staged in Douai, France, with Gladys Lunn leading England to victory over France.

1931  With the first ever sub-nine minute two mile run in Helsinki, Paavo Nurmi (FIN) sets his 29th and last world record. At the US Olympic Trials, 110m hurdler Jack Keller wins and sets the first world record to have an official wind reading. He clocks 14.4 with a headwind of -0.2 metres-per-second.

1932 Electrical timing apparatus is used at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where Eddie Tolan (USA) becomes the first black athlete to win an Olympic sprint gold medal. Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson (USA) uniquely wins both the women’s 80m hurdles and javelin throw and Argentina’s Juan Carlos Zabala wins the marathon to get South America’s first Olympic athletics title.

1933  The IAAF forms a European Commission, later the IAAF European Committee, and give its assent for a European Championships.

1934  The IAAF adopt ‘Finnish’ scoring tables for combined events, which are proposed by the Finnish athletics federation. The tables range from zero to 1150 points with the objective that equally good performances should score similar points across a range of events. A score of 1000 points corresponded approximately to a world record.

1934  The first European Athletics Championships (for men only) are held in Turin, Italy. Matti Järvinen (FIN) sets the ninth of his 10 world records in the javelin throw with 76.66m.

1935  Jesse Owens sets six world records in 45 minutes at the Western Conference ‘Big 10’ US Collegiate Championship in Ferry Field, Ann Arbor. His sequence: 15:15 – 100 yards, 9.4; 15:25 – long jump, 8.13m (a mark which stood as a world record until 1960); 15.45 – 200m and 220 yards straight, 20.3); 16:00 – 200m and 220 yards hurdles straight, 22.6.

1936  The 13th  IAAF Congress approves that the maximum following wind allowable for record purposes should be two metres-per-second.

1936   The IAAF takes over as the governing body for women’s athletics from the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale.

1936  Jesse Owens stars at the first televised Olympic Games in Berlin, winning the 100m, long jump, 200m and 4x100m.

1936  Forrest Towns (USA) sets six official world records at 110 metres or 120 yards hurdles, culminating with 13.7, the first-ever time below 14 seconds and a record which would stand until 1950.

1937  Lorenzo del Riccio, an Italian immigrant working for Paramount Studios in California, invents the photo-finish, which is first used to determine the results of horse races.

1938  The IAAF authorise the use of starting blocks, not so much as an aid to runners but to protect track surfaces from being continually dug up!

1938  The third Empire Games are staged in Sydney, Australia, the first major international competition to be held in Oceania. Decima Norman (AUS) wins five gold medals in the women’s events.

1938  The second European Athletics Championships are held in Paris, with a separate championship for women in Vienna where Claudia Testoni (ITA) sets a world record for the 80m hurdles.

1939  At the South American Championships in Lima, women’s events are included for the first time.