On April 6, 1896, the first race was run by the first Olympians the world had seen for more than a millennium. 15 men lined up (not all at once now, the concept of heats is not new) to run 100 meters.
Thomas Burke won with a time of 12.0 seconds.
Thomas Burke probably didn't run in this little hat.
On August 16, 2008 in Beijing, China, Usain Bolt ran the same race in 9.72 seconds.
Usain Bolt celebrates his victory, sans little hat.
In those scant 2.28 seconds lies over a century of feet hitting pavement, discus throwing, and javelins. And sweat. Quite a bit of sweat.
Athletics as an Olympic discipline is also known as Track and Field. It has consisted of 52 different events for men over the years, including Tug of War,* as well as hurdles, the marathon, shot put, javelin, and racewalking.
There are honestly too many events involved to give each one a fair shake. They are all very different from each other, and each has its own set of stars and strategies. What works in an 800m race might not work in a 200m race. It's so important to hold that baton correctly during a relay. Long jumping is distinct from pole vaulting, which is in turn distinct from the high jump. And don't even get me started on the shot put.
Instead of failing at describing them all, I'll just say that I view athletics as an especially beautiful Olympic event, because, for the most part, humans are equally matched for it. Running and throwing are things that are basically innate within us, and it doesn't matter whether or not, for instance, Jamaica has enough snow or funding for a bobsled team. A kid from Kenya who is so inclined can run really, really fast just as well as a kid from America. And they could be beaten by a kid from Argentina, or Azerbaijan, or anywhere else in the world.
(As an aside, in 1908 Great Britain brought 126 athletes to the Athletics competition, or roughly 42 times more athletes than Austria or Bohemia brought that year. Granted, London was the host in 1908, but still.)
Athletics is one of the few sports in which almost every country can and does participate. And that, my friends, is awesome.
Here is my favorite example of people being awesome:
(If that made you cry, I'm sorry. But not that sorry.)
(To apologize, here: find out why the Pole Vault is considered the sexiest of the Athletics events.)
*Thank you, Wikipedia, for this amazing tidbit:
The events contested have varied widely. From 1900 to 1920, tug of war was considered to be part of the Olympic athletics programme, although the sports of tug of war and athletics are now considered distinct.
Also, please note: we have discussed this before.
Wikipedia like WOW.