London 2012: Track and Field

Published On July 12, 2012 | By Zoë Hayden

Tell me about track and field:

Track and field events are part of the “Athletics” division of competition, which also includes road running events (the men’s and women’s marathons and the long-distance racewalking events). Track and field encompasses a lot of quintessential Olympic events that have been present since the Ancient Olympic Games in the 700s BC as well as new adaptations and variations of events that have continually evolved since the first Modern Games in 1896.  All events have both men’s and women’s categories, with some differences between the two.

100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m: Each event is simply a race to run the proscribed distance in the fastest amount of time. The shorter events are known as sprints.

110m and 400m hurdles (100m instead of 110m for women): Also a race–but one that also involves clearing a series of hurdles.

3000m steeplechase: Steeplechase is an obstacle race in which athletes must clear a total of 28 hurdles and seven water jumps.

4×100 and 4×400 relay: Each team consists of four athletes who must each run one set of the prescribed distance (100m or 400m) while maintaining and passing a baton.

Long jump: Athletes are provided with a runway, take-off board and a landing strip of soft sand. The goal is to jump the farthest from the take-off line on the runway with the length of jump measured at the first impression made in the sand.

Triple jump: Similar to the long jump, but after the take-off board there is an extra strip of runway where the athlete will perform a hop and a step before jumping into the landing pit. Triple jump distances are typically much longer than long jump distances due to the extra momentum gained with the hop and step.

High jump: Athletes take a running start before jumping, launching from one foot only over a four-meter wide bar that rests on supports. Athletes can begin jumping at any height or pass a height at their own discretion.  The event is organized in sets, with each athlete jumping in succession for each prescribed height.

Pole vault: Same as the high jump except the athlete uses a pole (size chosen at the athlete’s discretion) to propel themselves over the bar as opposed to their own jumping abilities.

Shot put: Athletes throw a solid ball (the “shot”) from an area called throwing circle.  The weight of the ball differs between men’s and women’s events, 7.26kg and 4kg respectively. The shot is held in one hand close to the neck and thrown (“put”) from this stance. Distance is measured from the front of the throwing circle to the point at which the shot first touches the ground, which must fall within the throwing sector.

Discus throw: Same format as shot put, except the athlete can hold or throw the discus in any manner that he or she chooses.  The weight also differs between men’s and women’s discuses, 1kg for women and 2kg for men.

Hammer throw: Same as shot put and discus throw except the “hammer” is actually a large metal ball attached to a wire with a handle.  It weighs 4kg for women and 7.26kg for men, like the shot put. The athletes wear gloves when handling the hammer and wind up by spinning it in a circle before releasing it into the throwing zone.

Javelin throw: The athlete simply must throw the javelin as far as he or she can. Lengths and weights vary between men’s and women’s competition–the length is standardized, but the weight of the javelin only requires that it meet a minimum requirement. The athlete launches the javelin from a runway, and distance is measured from where the javelin touches the ground first, within the throwing sector.

Decathlon (men’s) and heptathlon (women’s): Each is a mixed event involving challenges from both track and field. The events are done in sets over the course of two days, with breaks in between. The decathlon includes: 100m race, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400m race (day 1); 110m hurdle, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, 1500m race (day 2). The heptathlon includes: 100m hurdle, high jump, shot put, 200m race (day 1); long jump, javelin throw, 800m race (day 2).

What’s up with the scoring: The best distance or best time always wins barring disqualifications or penalties. Usually disqualifications and penalties are pretty obvious. They include missing an entire part of a course, giving a false start, throwing an object outside of the zone or committing a foot foul by stepping outside of a prescribed zone. Each event has its own tie-breaking procedures.

How do players qualify:

A National Olympic Committee submits up to three players in each event that have met internationally recognized qualifying times or distances. Each NOC can also submit one relay team of four per relay event. This year, qualifications had to be met by July 8, 2012, though each NOC maintained its own deadlines as well. The athletes also compete in qualifying rounds before proceeding to finals at the Olympics themselves, narrowing each category considerably before it becomes possible to medal.

International players to watch:

Usain Bolt will again compete in men’s 100m and 200m for Jamaica, defending his gold medals (as well as world records and Olympic records) for those events. Yelena Isinbaeva set a world record for women’s pole vaulting in 2008 and will return as a competitor for Russia this year.

Americans to watch:

The U.S. won gold in Beijing for both women’s and men’s 4×400 relay,and are favorites to win gold again. Team USA is bringing back much of the same personnel this summer, and many have medaled in other categories. For race events and relay, keep an eye on Angelo Taylor and Kerron Clement as well as Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross. Dawn Harper will be returning to 100m hurdles after her gold medal in 2008, as will Stephanie Trafton, who won that same honor in discus last Olympics.

Talk like an Olympian–terms to know:

False startwhen the athlete begins his or her race without being signaled, resulting often in a disqualification. There are two gunfire sound signals. If the athlete begins before the second signal, that indicates a false start.

Photo finish – The Olympics currently use a photo finish system of determining winners in close races with a camera aimed directly across the finish line. A timing system works with the high-speed camera in order to determine the exact fraction of a second when an athlete crossed the finish line.

Glide and spin – Two different styles of shot putting. An athlete using the glide will spin through the throwing circle quickly, executing the the put with one calculated forceful motion. The spin allows the athlete to gather momentum by creating a much bigger rotation of the body, similar to the technique of a discus thrower. The spin is used at a very high level by big, strong putters.

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About The Author

Zoë Hayden is a 22-year-old writer from Hopwood, Pennsylvania currently living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College and enjoys covering hockey, international sports tournaments, technology, history, science, and gender issues. You can find her on Twitter: @zoeclaire_