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Track and Field: Field Events

Track and Field: Field Events

Track and field events can be one of the most exciting sports in which to participate and to watch.  While athletes compete against others, they also compete against themselves trying to best their previous performances.  Through grit and determination, track and field athletes strive to improve their performances, even if it’s just by seconds or centimeters.  Athletes compete in secondary schools, colleges, and universities and in national and world competitions such as the Olympic Games.

In this lesson, the focus is on field events.

Some field events have a long history in human culture.  The hammer toss and shot put date back to the early centuries AD among the peoples of northern Europe and the British Isles.  The discus, javelin and the long jump go back even further to the ancient Greek Olympic games of the eighth century BC.  Although people have been leaping over things since the beginning of time, the high jump and pole vault events originated in the 19th century.

The long jump is basically an attempt to jump in one leap as far as one can over a sand-filled pit.  Jumpers get a running start of about 40 meters before launching themselves into the air.  The world record for men in the long jump is 8.95 meters set by Mike Powell of the United States in 1991.  The women’s long jump world record is held by the former USSR’s Galina Chistyakova at 7.52 meters.

The high jump is just that – a competition to see how high athletes can jump without any apparatus to aid them.  For decades, high jumpers used either a straight-on approach to the bar or a scissors technique, but that all changed in 1968 with the appearance of one oddly-named American called Dick Fosbury.  His name lent itself to an alliterative moniker for his head-first, face-up method of getting over the high jump bar – the Fosbury Flop.  He used this technique to win a gold medal in the Mexico City games, and the flop has been the method of choice for high jumpers ever since.

The pole vault is similar to the high jump in that athletes attempt to achieve great heights, but pole vault athletes use a 10- to 17-foot long pole to launch themselves over a bar some 20 feet high. The pole used by the world record holder, American-born Swede Armand Duplantis, is made of flexible carbon fiber, which allowed him to set the record of 6.18 meters (20 feet, 3.3 inches) in February 2020. With that record, Duplantis could vault over the world's tallest giraffe and clear it by a foot and a half!

The other field events all involve throwing objects as far as possible.  The world record for the javelin throw is nearly 105 meters set by Uwe Hohn of the former East Germany in 1984.  A javelin is essentially a lightweight spear thrown for distance. Most javelins today are made of steel, aluminum, or aluminum alloy. The javelin must contain a head, shaft, and chord grip. Watch out! The javelin's head is a sharp metal tip that is helpful in ensuring accurate measurement of a throw... so stay out of its way.

If a male athlete launches his 16-pound metal shot put over 60 feet, he is a world-class competitor. The world record for the men's shot put is 75 feet, 10 inches. That's about the length of a tennis court. A hammer also weighs 16 pounds but can be thrown much further than the shot is put. A hammer looks nothing like what you would find in a carpenter's toolbox. It is a metal ball (the head) attached to an almost four-foot steel wire with a handle. This allows the athlete to twirl the hammer before tossing it which builds up the energy to propel the hammer great distances. The world record for the hammer throw is 284.58 feet, about the length of a football field.

The men and women who compete in world-class field events are elite athletes whose training is a full-time pursuit.  This intense preparation pays off particularly in the men’s decathlon (fr. Greek δέκα [déka, "ten"] + ἆθλος [âthlos, “contest”]) and the women’s heptathlon (fr. Greek ἑπτά [heptá, "seven"]).

A decathlon is a suite of ten events done by the same athlete over two days.  The decathlon events on the first day are the 100-meter dash, the running long (broad) jump, the shot put, the high jump, and the 400-meter run.  On the second day, decathletes run the 110-meter hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin, and the 1,500-meter run.  American athlete Jim Thorpe was the first Olympic decathlon champion, and perhaps the most famous American decathlete was Bruce Jenner who won an Olympic gold medal in the event in 1976.

For women, the heptathlon is pared down to seven events: the 100-meter hurdles, the high jump, the shot put, the 200-meter run, the long jump, the javelin, and the 800-meter run.  Probably the greatest female heptathlete is the USA’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee who has won three heptathlon medals and three long jump medals in four different Olympic Games (’84, ’88, ’92, ’96).  Joyner-Kersee is one of the most famous athletes to have overcome severe asthma.

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