Athletics is the largest single sport at the Games, with the programme divided into track, field and road events. The concept of running faster than your rivals is simple but every aspect of an athlete's performance must be perfect to win gold.
Tokyo 2020 competition animation "One Minute, One Sport"
We will show you the rules and highlights of athletics track in one minute. Whether you are familiar with athletics track or want to know more about it, "One Minute, One Sport" explains the sport and how it works. Watch the video below.
The athletics track at the Olympic Stadium is a 400m oval. For all track events the finish line is in the same place, at the end of the ‘home straight’.
The track programme comprises sprints, middle-distance and long-distance events for men and women; hurdles and steeplechase races; and relays. Most events start with heats, with the fastest athletes or teams progressing to semi-finals and then the final.
To become the fastest human being at a particular distance requires not only speed but also supreme fitness, strength and the ability to master challenging techniques, such as the start in sprints and clearing the barriers in hurdles and steeplechase events.
Short-distance sprint races are the 100m, 200m and 400m. These three events (each with men's and women's categories), along with two hurdles events for men and two for women, employ a crouching start using starting blocks.
The 100m, which determines the fastest human being and is one of the most eagerly awaited event at any Games, is run on a straight course. The distance was covered in 12 seconds at the Athens 1896 Games while Jim Hines (USA) became the first Olympian to dip below 10 seconds at Mexico 1968. Since then, the world record has been lowered primarily by American and Jamaican athletes.
The current men's 100m world record is 9.58 seconds, set by the greatest sprinter in history, Usain Bolt (Jamaica), at the IAAF World Championships in 2009. Remarkably, any athlete running the distance in under ten seconds covers ten metres in less than one second.
- 100m (Men/Women)
- 200m (Men/Women)
- 400m (Men/Women)
- 800m (Men/Women)
- 1,500m (Men/Women)
- 5,000m (Men/Women)
- 10,000m (Men/Women)
- 110m Hurdles (Men)
- 100m Hurdles (Women)
- 400m Hurdles (Men/Women)
- 3,000m Steeplechase (Men/Women)
- 4 x 100m Relay (Men/Women)
- 4 x 400m Relay (Men/Women)
- 4 x 400m Mixed Relay
Essence of the sport
Tactics and technique
Middle and long-distance events range from 800m to 10,000m. In the shortest of these, athletes must stay in separate lanes for the first 100m, after which they are free to use any lane. In the 1,500m and longer races, athletes stand along a crescent-shaped start line and all lanes are open to run in.
Middle-distance athletes often need to find a scintillating last spurt of speed to cross the finish line first, while endurance and running efficiency allied to flexible tactics can prove decisive in the longer races.
The 3,000m steeplechase poses the additional challenge of jumping over barriers placed at five points around the track. The height of these obstacles is fixed at 36 inches (91.4cm) for men and 30 inches (76.2cm) for women. One of the five consists of a water jump, which further saps the energy and can be tricky to manoeuvre.
There are four hurdles events: women's 100m, men's 110m, and the men's and women's 400m. The shorter events are run on a straight track, the longer races over one lap, all with ten hurdles to overcome.
In four-person relay events, victory is not simply a matter of getting together the athletes with the fastest times. As the Japanese team competing in the men's 4x100m relay at Rio 2016 proved, technique can count for more.
In a race crowded with athletes capable of running 100m in less than ten seconds, the Japanese team didn't have a single athlete at that level yet still placed second to powerhouse Jamaica. How? Japan utilised an underhand baton pass, a technique that is very efficient but difficult to execute. The team thoroughly researched the method then practised it relentlessly.
A new event at Tokyo 2020 will be the mixed 4x400m relay. The order in which the two men and women in each team run could be a key factor in what promises to be an exciting and intriguing spectacle.
Outlook for the Tokyo 2020 Games
Legendary stars and new names
Athletes from North America and the Caribbean tend to dominate in short-distance races, while middle and long-distance events are usually the preserve of African athletes.
The retirement of the iconic Usain Bolt has left a space on the men's sprint podium, while the same generation of athletes includes female stars such as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (Jamaica), who won the 100m gold at London 2012, and six-times gold medallist Allyson Felix (USA).
In their stead have emerged Jamaican sprint sensation Elaine Thompson, who completed the 100m/200m double at Rio 2016; and Wayde van Niekerk from South Africa, who smashed all-time great Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record to win the Rio 2016 400m gold at the age of only 24.
At Rio 2016, runners from Ethiopia and Kenya captured every medal in the women's 5,000m and 10,000m. Ethiopia's Almaz Ayana won gold in the latter event with a spectacular new world record, more than 14 seconds faster than the previous best.
Regardless of whether their head, hands or feet reach the line first, the athlete has not finished until their trunk does so.