Run. Jump. Throw. The quest for competition is innate in the human spirit, and track and field is based on the simplest contests: Who can run the fastest? Jump the longest? Throw the farthest? “All sports, from soccer to football to baseball to basketball, from rugby to wrestling to tennis, have to include higher, farther, faster,” says Curtis Frye, track and field and cross country coach at the University of South Carolina and the U.S. Olympic team’s assistant coach for men’s sprints and hurdles. “If we don’t learn how to throw, how to jump, how to run, then we don’t become an athlete.” The best track and field athletes in the world – among them, the NCAA’s most accomplished college athletes – will gather this summer at the Olympics in Brazil to compete in contests that have existed for millennia but can end in mere seconds and be decided by millimeters. The planting of a foot, the angle of an arm, the speed of an approach run – each skill was tested and perfected as the road to Rio led through campuses, preparing a select few student-athletes for a moment that could last a lifetime.
WHAT IT IS: A metal ball (16 pounds for men, 8.8 pounds for women) is put with one hand from a 7-foot-diameter circle lined at the front with a curved toe board.
ORIGINS: Soldiers in the Middle Ages threw cannonballs for sport, and in official competition a similar version appeared at the Highland Games in 19th-century Scotland.
MODERN TIMES: For men, the shot put has been an Olympic event since 1896. It was introduced for women in 1948.
THE TECHNIQUE: The shot is put, not thrown. What’s the difference? For starters, it should be held at the base of the fingers, not in the palm, and the elbow should stay high at all times. If not, the put can come off the hand more like a baseball pitch, risking injury. “The biggest thing I preach is, when you get to the front, you don’t throw,” says John Smith, assistant track and field coach for throws at the University of Mississippi.
CRITICAL SKILL: No surprise: explosive upper body strength.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: Just as the steeplechase is the most popular YouTube sensation in track and field, so is the shot put a popular Google image search. Try this one: “Funny shot put faces.”
WATCH FOR THIS: Shot putters can be divided into “gliders” and “spinners.” The glide technique was introduced by American Parry O’Brien, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1950s. He began his stance facing backward at the rear of the ring in a crouching position, then kicked one leg toward the front while the other followed in a gliding position as he rotated his body 180 degrees before his put. The spin, popularized by Soviet thrower Aleksandr Baryshnikov in the early 1970s, takes advantage of rotational momentum, similar to the discus. The spin taps into torque and momentum to help propel the shot.
WHAT IT IS: A metal ball (for men, it weighs 16 pounds, for women, 8) attached to a grip by a steel wire is thrown from inside a 7-foot circle.
ORIGINS: The rare event that predates even the Greeks, a contest reminiscent of the hammer was part of the Tailteann Games nearly 4,000 years ago, when a Celtic warrior threw a chariot wheel on its axle. Over time, researchers say, the wheel evolved into a boulder on a wooden handle, and then a sledgehammer.
MODERN TIMES: Men have competed in the hammer since the 1900 Olympics, but women did not have a comparable Olympic event until 2000.
THE TECHNIQUE: A hammer thrower typically takes three or four spins before release. “Throughout each turn, you are accelerating the ball so it’s at maximum speed and angle when you release it,” says Bonnie Edmondson, assistant men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field coach at Trinity College (Connecticut) and the U.S. Olympic women’s team’s assistant coach for throws.
CRITICAL SKILL: Knowing when to let go. “What you’re doing is you’re creating speed, and your body is an axis to the throw,” Edmondson says. “As the ball starts going faster, it wants to pull you out. You don’t want to go with the ball, and you don’t want to pull back so hard that it pulls the ball out of the orbit. So, it’s a balance.”
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: King Henry VIII of England was depicted in a drawing from the 16th century throwing a blacksmith’s hammer.
WATCH FOR THIS: If an athlete begins to bend at the waist, Edmondson says, the ball is winning the tug-of-war.
WHAT IT IS: From a standing start, runners race 3,000 meters, clearing 28 barriers and seven 12-foot-long (and more than 2 feet deep) water jumps along the way.
ORIGINS: Started in Britain, where men raced from one town’s steeple to the next, jumping fieldstone walls and tiny tributaries along the way. Moved from British byways to the track in the 1879 English Championships.
THE TECHNIQUE: The best steeplechasers use the barriers as tools, not obstacles, says Christopher Doomes, Morehouse College assistant track and field and cross country coach and an assistant track coach for Nigeria at the 2012 games in London. Most steeplechasers plant their takeoff foot five or six feet from the barrier, then stay low and use the solid base to propel themselves onward. For most, an ideal water-pit landing involves one foot in and one foot out, continuing the stride.
CRITICAL SKILL: Timing. “You have to gauge your distance from the barrier to push off it and still be in sync with the rhythm of your stride,” Doomes says. “You see a lot of athletes stop or shutter-step in front of the barrier. That’s lost time.”
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: Even Division I steeplechase champion Ferlic has spent some time in the water. He took a splashy tumble at the 2015 Division I Men’s Track and Field Championships, then came back in 2016 to beat the rest of the field by 3½ seconds.
WATCH FOR THIS: Steeplechasers are known for their grit and resilience. But they are also a hit on YouTube, where videos of runners tripping in the water are popular. Former American steeplechase record-holder Ann Gaffigan has written of her sport: “Like NASCAR but without the noise.”
WHAT IT IS: High jumpers launch from one foot and propel themselves over a horizontal bar without knocking it to the ground.
ORIGINS: The sport originated with the Celts in the early 1800s. It spread to England, Germany, Canada and the United States.
MODERN TIMES: Part of the modern Olympics since Athens in 1896, though even a casual spectator can see today’s high jump has little in common with our great-grandfathers’. In its earliest days, competitors simply hopped over the bar. Then came the straddle, the scissors, the Western roll and the Eastern cut-off. But no one revolutionized the high jump like American Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic champion, who flipped over the bar while arching his back and looking up to the sky. Fosbury himself was dazzled by his eponymous move. “Sometimes I see movies,” he told The New York Times in 1968, “and I wonder how I do it.”
THE TECHNIQUE: According to Cliff Rovelto, director of track and field and cross country at Kansas State University and the 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s team’s assistant coach for jumps, the most critical moment of the high jump is the penultimate step in the approach – the next-to-last contact the foot makes with ground. The speed over that crucial step and its distance from the bar can be the difference between success and failure.
CRITICAL SKILL: Rovelto says most high jumpers can be categorized as “speed floppers” or “power floppers.” In basic terms, speed jumpers need a fast approach on the run up to the bar; power jumpers rely more on gymnastic ability.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: Until they were outlawed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, a few high jumpers used thick-soled, built-up shoes to add height and advantage.
WATCH FOR THIS: Rovelto says Fosbury’s most important contribution to the event was probably unintended. “I personally believe the flop to be a superior technique,” Rovelto says, “but for sure, it has extended careers and allowed athletes to compete over an extended period of time because it’s easier on the body.”
WHAT IT IS: Pole vaulters sprint while carrying a lengthy pole along a runway, jam the pole into a metal box recessed into the ground and located at the base of uprights, then propel themselves over a 4.5-meter-long horizontal bar.
ORIGINS: The sport is believed to have been inspired long ago when people used sticks to propel themselves over ditches, though history first records a pole vault-like sport in the 1600s. It originally measured distance, not height.
MODERN TIMES: An Olympic event for men since 1896 and for women since 2000, over the years the pole (at first ash or hickory wood, then iron spikes or steel, now flexible fiberglass) has changed more than the vault. “Mechanically, coaches are teaching vault to kids the same way they were teaching it 30 or 40 years ago,” says Cliff Rovelto, who will coach jumps for the 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s track and field team.
THE TECHNIQUE: Think all the action in the pole vault happens when the body meets (or nearly meets) the bar? The speed approach run, the precise placement of the pole in the box, the gentle rotation of the pole in the athlete’s grip – all are critical. “The athletes are trying to stay away from the pole and keep their body long. As the pole slows down in its rotation as it reaches vertical, then the athlete has to speed up their rotation,” Rovelto says.
CRITICAL SKILL: Frankly, height. Taller athletes have a better chance of developing the skill to manage longer poles; the longer the pole, the higher the center of mass when the pole is upright. And, of course, an athlete at the end of a 15-foot pole can fly higher than an athlete with a 13-foot pole. “How effectively or how well you chose your parents has a lot to do with how you’re going to jump,” Rovelto says.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: A 19th century vaulter known for “climbing” his pole to gain several feet while it was upright ushered in a new rule: Move your grip above your top hand after your feet leave the ground, and the vault is declared foul.
WHAT IT IS: The athlete grasps the spearlike javelin on its corded grip and throws it as far as possible.
ORIGINS: Many field events evolved from skills man once needed for survival, and excelling at spear hunting and keeping the enemy at bay were crucial life skills. As a game, it dates to the pentathlon in the ancient Olympics around the eighth century B.C.
MODERN TIMES: Considering its long association with the Olympics, the javelin was a bit of a late arrival in modern times, joining the games in 1908 for men and 1932 for women.
THE TECHNIQUE: Throwing a javelin requires equal doses of speed, technique and strength. The thrower isn’t just going for distance, but for optimum angle to take advantage of aerodynamic lift and drag on the apparatus itself.
CRITICAL SKILL: Overall athleticism. “The stronger but slower muscles come into play early before the faster, but relatively weaker, upper body muscles are activated,” Roald Bradstock, two-time Olympian in javelin for the United Kingdom, wrote for Coaching Athletics Quarterly. “To be a javelin thrower, one needs a good throwing arm; to be a great javelin thrower, one needs to use the entire body.”
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: Thirty years ago, world-class javelin throwers were in danger of outgrowing their stadiums – not to mention endangering fans. The International Association of Athletics Federations redesigned the apparatus for men, moving its center of gravity forward and blunting the nose, which caused it to drop earlier. The result: Throwing distances reduced by 10 percent, and the world record for men hasn’t been touched since 1986. Women weren’t far behind – their javelins were redesigned in 1999.
WATCH FOR THIS: Yes, the javelin is a throw, putting it in a category with the discus, hammer and shot put. But the training and skills required mean a javelin thrower has more in common with a pole vaulter. “It’s closer to what jumpers do than what throwers do,” says John Smith, assistant track and field coach for throws at the University of Mississippi. “Javelin throwers are usually specialists. The training for the other throws does not mix well with the javelin whatsoever.”
WHAT IT IS: Men throw a 4.4-pound disc that is 8.66 inches in diameter. Women throw a 7.13-inch-diameter disc that is half as heavy. Both try to throw as far as they can.
ORIGINS: The discus appears even in “The Iliad,” where the Greek poet Homer mentions it as part of the funeral games for a war hero. It was introduced as part of the pentathlon within the first century of the Ancient Olympics.
MODERN TIMES: The archetype discus thrower was such an indelible image of ancient Greece (thanks in part to Discobolus, the sculptor Myron’s fifth century B.C. sculpture), perhaps it’s no surprise that the event has been part of the modern Olympics since its introduction in 1896 and was added for women in 1928 in Amsterdam, the first time women competed in track and field events.
THE TECHNIQUE: Mastering the discus throw involves harnessing centrifugal force. The technique sounds complicated, and it is, says John Smith, assistant track and field coach for throws at the University of Mississippi. “It all starts with the back of the ring,” he begins. “When you enter, you have to get the weight on your left foot and bend that left knee a little bit. You have to pick the right up when the left arm is at 90 degrees. And that starts the rotation, and then you’ve got to run that right leg across the ring, and when it makes contact it’s gotta do something – like when you kill a bug into the ground. It’s gotta grind. And then that brings the left leg to the front, and when that grounds, that’s when the finish starts. In the discus, when the left foot makes contact with the front of the ring, you’ve got to wait for the discus to get to the low point before you fire it through and across. If you pull on a disc too early, what you get is a throw in the cage.”
CRITICAL SKILL: Well-placed patience. “Discus is what I call hurry-up-and-wait,” Smith says. “You’ve got to move fast, but then you’ve got to wait and be patient in the middle. When you pull that trigger too early, you shoot yourself in the foot instead of shooting at the field.”
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, the first modern thrower to throw the discus while rotating the body was Czech athlete Frantisek Janda-Suk, who perfected his technique after studying the Discobolus. He won the Olympic silver medal at the 1900 games in Paris.
WATCH FOR THIS: An athlete’s height in the discus isn’t as important as the length of his or her arms. One of the best college discus throwers Smith has worked with was a 5-foot-5 woman with a 6-foot-1 wingspan.
WHAT IT IS: Long jumpers sprint on a 40-meter-long runway – then, from a wooden launch board, jump as far as possible. Distance is measured from the board’s edge to the closest recess in the sand.
ORIGINS: The only jumping event in the ancient Greeks’ pentathlon, it dates to as early as 776 B.C. and is depicted in Greek pottery. Back then, athletes jumped from a standing position or took just a short run.
MODERN TIMES: On the Olympic roster since the first modern games in 1896 and added for women in 1948. For a few years at the beginning of the 20th century, a second event involved men jumping from a standing position.
THE TECHNIQUE: The arc of the jump is generated by a combination of the athlete’s horizontal velocity – the sprinting speed down the runway – and the vertical velocity, represented by the liftoff speed at the launch of the jump. An athlete maximizes a long jump distance by executing the jump at a critical angle that makes the most out of both the speed of the run and height of the jump.
CRITICAL SKILL: Speed – at least for most. American Mike Powell, the former long jump world record holder, has said 90 percent of a jump is connected to the speed of the approach run. But that’s not the case for everyone, including NCAA Division I champion Porter, a self-proclaimed slow sprinter on the approach run who relies more on the jump than the run. (“Slow” is a relative term; Porter’s personal best in the 100 meters is 11.92 seconds.) She launches off her left foot, pulls her right knee as high as she can. Then, once that knee can go no higher, she extends her legs to push herself forward and wring out a few more centimeters. “I’m a power jumper,” she says, “so I put my power in my takeoff.”
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: In 2002, sports scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in England studied why Ancient Greeks held 20-pound weights called halteres in their hands for the long jump competition. The verdict: The weights, a frequent find at archaeological digs near competition sites, pushed jumpers 6 percent farther.
WHAT IT IS: Starting from blocks and running in lanes, competitors race 100 meters down the track straightaway.
ORIGINS: Ancient Greeks raced this event’s forebear, a “stade” or “stadion.” That sprint, nearly twice the length of the modern 100 meters, forms the root of the word “stadium.”
MODERN TIMES: Part of the modern Olympics since Athens in 1896 and added as a women’s event at the 1928 games in Amsterdam.
THE TECHNIQUE: The best sprinters look as if they are light on their feet. In reality, they are explosive – and in those lightning-fast touches of toe on track, they are pushing their bodies onward, not to mention upward.
CRITICAL SKILL: Speed, of course – but strategy, too. Sprinters should emerge gradually from their low body angle in the starting blocks to help them thrust forward as the race starts.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: American men have won more than half of the 100-meter Olympic gold medals since 1896, but their last victory was in 2004.
WATCH FOR THIS: The 100 meters is a dash from start to finish, but runners tend to reach peak speed at the 50- or 60-meter mark.