The athletics meeting forms the backbone of the Summer Olympics. The foremost international athletics meeting is the IAAF World Championships in Athletics , which incorporates track and field, marathon running and race walking. In the 19th century, the term athletics acquired a more narrow definition in Europe and came to describe sports involving competitive running, walking, jumping and throwing.
This definition continues to be the most prominent one in the United Kingdom and most of the areas of the former British Empire. Furthermore, foreign words in many Germanic and Romance languages which are related to the term athletics also have a similar meaning. In much of North America, athletics is synonymous with sports in general, maintaining a more historical usage of the term. The word "athletics" is rarely used to refer to the sport of athletics in this region. Track and field is preferred, and is used in the United States and Canada to refer to most athletics events, including racewalking and marathon running although cross country running is typically considered as a separate sport.
Athletic contests in running, walking, jumping and throwing are among the oldest of all sports and their roots are prehistoric. This later expanded to include throwing and jumping events within the ancient pentathlon. Athletics competitions also took place at other Panhellenic Games , which were founded later around BC. The Cotswold Olimpick Games , a sports festival which emerged in 17th century England , featured athletics in the form of sledgehammer throwing contests. The premier event of this competition was a running event, but various ancient Greek disciplines were also on display.
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The Olympiade marked the introduction of the metric system into the sport. The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich held an organised competition in , and a regular series of closed meetings open only to undergraduates, was held by Exeter College, Oxford from The first modern-style indoor athletics meetings were recorded shortly after in the s, including a meet at Ashburnham Hall in London which featured four running events and a triple jump competition. The Amateur Athletic Association AAA was established in England in as the first national body for the sport of athletics and began holding its own annual athletics competition — the AAA Championships.
An athletics competition was included in the first modern Olympic Games in and it has been as one of the foremost competitions at the quadrennial multi-sport event ever since. Originally for men only, the Olympics saw the introduction of women's events in the athletics programme. Athletics is part of the Paralympic Games since the inaugural Games in Athletics has a very high-profile during major championships, especially the Olympics, but otherwise is less popular.
In modern times, athletes can receive money for racing, putting an end to the so-called " amateurism " that existed before. The first organized international competitions for athletes with a physical disability not deaf began in , when the first international Stoke Mandeville Games were organized for World War II veterans. This inspired the first Paralympic Games , held in Competitions would over time be expanded to include mainly athletes with amputations , cerebral palsy and visual impairment , in addition to wheelchair events.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, the sport's governing body, defines athletics in six disciplines: track and field , road running , race walking , cross country running , mountain running , and trail running  mountain running was added in  and trail running was added in   . All forms of athletics are individual sports with the exception of relay races. However, athletes' performances are often tallied together by country at international championships, and in the case of cross country and certain road races the finishing positions or times of the top athletes from each team or country are combined to declare a team victor.
Track and field competitions emerged in the late 19th century and were typically contested between athletes who were representing rival educational institutions , military organisations and sports clubs. Men and women compete separately. Track and field comes in both indoor and outdoor formats, with most indoor competitions occurring in winter , while outdoor events are mostly held in summer. The sport is defined by the venue in which the competitions are held — the track and field stadium. A variety of running events are held on the track which fall into three broad distance categories: sprints , middle-distance , and long-distance track events.
Relay races feature teams comprising four runners each, who must pass a baton to their teammate after a specified distance with the aim of being the first team to finish. Hurdling events and the steeplechase are a variation upon the flat running theme in that athletes must clear obstacles on the track during the race. The field events come in two types — jumping and throwing competitions.
In throwing events, athletes are measured by how far they hurl an implement, with the common events being the shot put , discus , javelin , and hammer throw. There are four common jumping events: the long jump and triple jump are contests measuring the horizontal distance an athlete can jump, while the high jump and pole vault are decided on the height achieved. Combined events , which include the decathlon typically competed by men and heptathlon typically competed by women , are competitions where athletes compete in a number of different track and field events, with each performance going toward a final points tally.
The most prestigious track and field contests occur within athletics championships and athletics programmes at multi-sport events. The Olympic athletics competition and World Championships in Athletics , and the Paralympic athletics competition and World Para Athletics Championships , are the highest and most prestigious levels of competition in track and field.
Track and field events have become the most prominent part of major athletics championships and many famous athletes within the sport of athletics come from this discipline.
Discrete track and field competitions are found at national championships -level and also at annual, invitational track and field meets. Meetings range from elite competitions — such as those in the IAAF Diamond League series — to basic all comers track meets , inter-sports club meetings and schools events, which form the grassroots of track and field.
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Road running competitions are running events predominantly long distance which are mainly conducted on courses of paved or tarmac roads , although major events often finish on the track of a main stadium. In addition to being a common recreational sport , the elite level of the sport — particularly marathon races — are one of the most popular aspects of athletics. The marathon is also the only road running event featured at the World Para Athletics Championships and the Summer Paralympics.
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The sport of road running finds its roots in the activities of footmen : male servants who ran alongside the carriages of aristocrats around the 18th century, and who also ran errands over distances for their masters. Foot racing competitions evolved from wagers between aristocrats, who pitted their footman against that of another aristocrat in order to determine a winner.
The sport became professionalised as footmen were hired specifically on their athletic ability and began to devote their lives to training for the gambling events. The amateur sports movement in the late 19th century marginalised competitions based on the professional, gambling model. The Summer Olympics saw the birth of the modern marathon and the event led to the growth of road running competitions through annual events such as the Boston Marathon first held in and the Lake Biwa Marathon and Fukuoka Marathons , which were established in the s.
The s running boom in the United States made road running a common pastime and also increased its popularity at the elite level. Ekiden contests — which originated in Japan and remain very popular there — are a relay race variation on the marathon, being in contrast to the typically individual sport of road running.
Cross country running is the most naturalistic of the sports in athletics as competitions take place on open-air courses over surfaces such as grass , woodland trails, and earth. It is both an individual and team sport , as runners are judged on an individual basis and a points scoring method is used for teams.
Cross country's most successful athletes often compete in long-distance track and road events as well. The Crick Run in England in was the first recorded instance of an organised cross country competition. The sport gained popularity in British, then American schools in the 19th century and culminated in the creation of the first International Cross Country Championships in A number of continental cross country competitions are held, with championships taking place in Asia , Europe , North America and South America.
The sport has retained its status at the scholastic level, particularly in the United Kingdom and United States. While cross country competitions are no longer held at the Olympics, having featured in the athletics programme from —, it has been present as one of the events within the modern pentathlon competition since the Summer Olympics. Fell running and Orienteering are other competitive sports similar to cross country, although they feature an element of navigation which is absent from the set courses of cross country.
Racewalking is a form of competitive walking that usually takes place on open-air roads, although running tracks are also occasionally used. Racewalking is the only sport in athletics in which judges monitor athletes on their technique. Racewalkers must always have a foot in contact with the ground and their advancing leg must be straightened, not bent at the knee — failure to follow these rules results in disqualification from the race.
Racewalking finds its roots in the sport of pedestrianism which emerged in the late 18th century in England. Spectators would gamble on the outcome of the walking competitions. Racewalking was briefly dropped from the Olympic programme in , but the men's 50 kilometres race walk has been held at every Olympic Games but one since The men's 20 kilometres race walk was added to the Olympic athletics schedule in and the women's event was first held in The significant variation in people's abilities in the sport of athletics has led to the creation of numerous competitive categories, in order that athletes are pitted against rivals of a similar kind or ability, and to include groups of people who would otherwise not be competitive in open-to-all events.
The eligibility of athletes for a given category is occasionally a source of controversy among the sport's participants, officials and spectators, with disputes typically being rooted in deliberate cheating in order to gain a competitive advantage or differing cultural perspectives over the eligibility of a category. Beyond the primary categories based on physical attributes, some competitions have further eligibility criteria based on nationality, community membership or occupation.
The foremost division of this kind is by sex: in athletics, men and women almost exclusively compete against people of the same sex. In contrast to the men's division, the development of the women's division has caused regular dispute in terms of eligibility. In , the IAAF replaced the sex chromatin test with general medical tests for athletes of all divisions, due to changes in ethical and scientific viewpoints.
The question of eligibility for the women's division continued to be a contentious and public issue into the 21st century, with Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand bearing periods of inegibility and taking the IAAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over their bans under the hyperandrogenism rules. The dispute reached new heights in with the United Nations Human Rights Council issuing a statement that the IAAF was breaching "international human rights norms and standards" through its practice of allowing some athletes to compete in the women's division only once they had lowered their testosterone levels through medical intervention.
Age is a significant determiner of ability to compete in athletics, with athletic ability generally increasing through childhood and adolescence, peaking in early adulthood, then gradually declining from around the age of 30 onwards.
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At international level, there are three major categories for young athletes: under , under formerly junior , and under formerly youth. Beyond international rules, different youth categories are in use in the sport, often in the form of two-year or single age groupings. Athletes' eligibility for a competitive age grouping is typically assessed through official documentation, such as birth records or passports.