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History of Running

Humans have always run - or to put it more accurately, running is what makes us human. Although many avid athletes would defend the philosophical aspect of this point, scientists have recently found that, from a purely evolutionary perspective, it is the ability to run distance that makes humans, well, human.

Long ago, our ape-like ancestor began to evolve - and the only thing that scientists can attribute to the dramatic anatomical changes from Australopithecus to Homo-sapiens is the introduction of running as a means of survival. Humans basically gave up the ability to live in trees for the chance to hunt animals on land. They needed to combine a reasonable amount of speed with exceptional endurance in order to get to their food faster than their fellow meat eaters.

The body we see today - from our short toes (designed for a more efficient push off) to our big butts (so that we don't fall over moving upright) - can only be explained by this newfound need to run.

These new findings provide scientific proof for the old philosophy, "I run, therefore I am." So although we no longer need to run to find food, in our own way, many of us still run to feel entirely human - we just didn't realize how natural that inclination really is.

The Ancient Olympics

The first Olympics were held in Greece sometime around 776 B.C. The games were named after the host city, Olympia, which in turn was named after Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and the mythical home of Greek Gods.

The Games were celebrated every four years for almost twelve centuries. By the end of that time, there were five total events, three of which were foot races - by far the most popular and highly regarded feat for the ancient Greeks. The winner of each event was given an olive wreath, large sums of money and vats of olive oil.

It is unclear exactly why or when the Games officially ended. However, as the Greeks' power declined in the shadow of Rome, documentation of the winners also waned. Until sometime in late 300 A.D., any proof disappeared completely.

Modern Olympic Games

After the France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), a historian named Pierre de Coubertin decided that the French lost because of the soldiers lack of physical fitness. So he decided to start a campaign for the large-scale, international resurrection of the Olympic Games.

The campaign eventually was successful. The first Olympic Games of the modern era were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece and featured competitions in nine sports with a total of only 250 athletes. It was declared a hit, and the International Olympic Committee decided to hold the Games every four years from that day forward.

The Four-Minute Mile

The new era of sport began when a young doctor from England ran a full mile in under four minutes. It was May 6, 1954 when Roger Bannister first broke the barrier by running 3:59.4 on a cinder track in Oxford. By doing what previously had been considered impossible, Bannister set the standard of excellence for all distance runners to follow.

Woman Enter the Sport

The march towards gender equality in the sport has been a long, arduous process. In 1928, five track and field events for women were finally allowed into the Olympic Games. These events were previously thought to be too taxing for the gentle, sensitive nature of the "weaker half." The final event was the 800 meters. When some of the women collapsed in exhaustion at the finish line, the public outcry was so great that the event (and therefore all events longer than 400 meters) were dropped until 1960.

But even then, no event longer than the 800 was allowed on the track for championship meets. Women took their subtle revolution to the roads, and more specifically, to the Boston Marathon. In 1966, a woman named Roberta Gibb hid in the bushes until the start gun, jumped into the race, and eventually finished as the first women's "unofficial" winner with a time of 3:21.40.

International women's marathoning quickly grew in popularity and the performances displayed were too competitive to be overlooked, as women quickly moved from the three-hour mark to sub 2:30 within a matter of years. This made the exclusion of shorter distances in championship events become harder to defend. Finally, in 1979, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) finally added the women's 3,000 meters to the Olympic Games and established the 5,000 and 10,000 meters as world-record distances.

Perhaps the greatest breakthrough in women's distance running occurred during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when Joan Benoit became the first winner of the women's Marathon. The victory was celebrated in front of thousands in the stadium and millions on television. Her time of 2:24.52 was too fast and her composure too great to go unnoticed. However, her peers on the track could still not compete in any event over 3,000 meters.

True structural equality for women really only occurred in the 1990s, when (finally) the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races were added to the Olympics and World Championships. This made the men's and women's event schedules identical for the first time in history.

The Rise of the Eastern Africans

For years, long-distance running was dominated by white men from affluent western nations. Then, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Marathons in world-record times, and Kip Keino of Kenya won Olympic gold in the 1,500 at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, with his margin of victory being over 20 meters.

These days, the likes of Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Martin Lel of Kenya are considered unbeatable. Runners from East Africa hold roughly two thirds of the top marathon performances of all time, a Kenyan man had won 15 of the 17 Boston Marathon as of 2009, and all of the major world records on the men's side are held by athletes of Eastern African descent.

Where We Stand Now

Long-distance running and track and field are now professional sports with major events held annually on the road, track and even terrain above 11,000 feet in elevation. The pinnacle of sport remains the Olympic Games, with World Track and Field Championships and World Cross Country Championships held on a biyearly schedule. However, a huge community exists outside the elite level and over 500,000 people complete a marathon each year (in the U.S. alone). There are track meets, road races and distance events held almost every day in every season throughout the world.

Explore the history of running from its essential human basis to its modern sporting variations
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