The foot racing events, which include sprints, middle- and long-distance events, race walking and hurdling, are won by the athlete with the fastest time. The jumping and throwing events are won by the athlete who achieves the greatest distance or height. Regular jumping events include long jump, triple jump, high jump and pole vault, while the most common throwing events are shot put, javelin, discus and hammer. There are also "combined events" or "multi events", such as the pentathlon consisting of five events, heptathlon consisting of seven events, and decathlon consisting of ten events. In these, athletes participate in a combination of track and field events. Most track and field events are individual sports with a single victor; the most prominent team events are relay races, which typically feature teams of four. Events are almost exclusively divided by gender, although both the men's and women's competitions are usually held at the same venue. If a race has too many people to run all at once, preliminary heats will be run to narrow down the field of participants.
Track and field is one of the oldest sports. In ancient times, it was an event held in conjunction with festivals and sports meets such as the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece. In modern times, the two most prestigious international track and field competitions are athletics competition at the Olympic Games and the IAAF World Championships in Athletics. The International Association of Athletics Federations is the international governing body.
Records are kept of the best performances in specific events, at world and national levels, right down to a personal level. However, if athletes are deemed to have violated the event's rules or regulations, they are disqualified from the competition and their marks are erased.
In North America, the term track and field may be used to refer to other athletics events, such as the marathon, rather than strictly track-based events.
The sport of track and field has its roots in human prehistory. Track and field-style events are among the oldest of all sporting competitions, as running, jumping and throwing are natural and universal forms of human physical expression. The first recorded examples of organized track and field events at a sports festival are the Ancient Olympic Games. At the first Games in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, only one event was contested: the stadion footrace. The scope of the Games expanded in later years to include further running competitions, but the introduction of the Ancient Olympic pentathlon marked a step towards track and field as it is recognized today—it comprised a five-event competition of the long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, stadion footrace, and wrestling.
Track and field events were also present at the Panhellenic Games in Greece around this period, and they spread to Rome in Italy around 200 BC. After the period of Classical antiquity (in which the sport was largely Greco-Roman influenced) new track and field events began developing in parts of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. The stone put and weight throw competitions popular among Celtic societies in Ireland and Scotland were precursors to the modern shot put and hammer throw events. One of the last track and field events to develop was the pole vault, which stemmed from competitions such as the Fierljeppen contests in the Northern European Lowlands in the 18th century.
Discrete modern track and field competitions, separate from general sporting festivals, were first recorded in the 19th century. These were typically organised by educational institutions, military organisations and sports clubs as competitions between rival establishments. Competitions in the English public schools were conceived as human equivalents of horse racing, fox hunting and hare coursing, influenced by a Classics-rich curriculum. The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt is the oldest running club in the world, with written records going back to 1831 and evidence that it was established by 1819. The school organised Paper Chase races in which runners followed a trail of paper shreds left by two "foxes"; even today RSSH runners are called "hounds" and a race victory is a "kill". The first definite record of Shrewsbury's (cross-country) Annual Steeplechase is in 1834, making it the oldest running race of the modern era. The school also lays claim to the oldest track and field meeting still in existence, originating in the Second Spring Meeting first documented in 1840. This featured a series of throwing and jumping events with mock horse races including the Derby Stakes, the Hurdle Race and the Trial Stakes. Runners were entered by "owners" and named as though they were horses. 13 miles (21 km) away and a decade later, the first Wenlock Olympian Games were held at Much Wenlock racecourse. Events at the 1851 Wenlock Games included a "half-mile foot race" (805 m) and a "leaping in distance" competition.