A Potted History of Athletics in England

The English meaning of the word “athletics” is a sport which comprises running, walking, jumping and throwing events. Americans use the term “track and field” rather than athletics, which tends to be a generic word for any sport to them.

There are full-blown books at one end of the reading spectrum and small articles or blogs, usually on the Internet, at the other end. This potted history sits somewhere in the middle. The sole objective is to give the reader a taste for the subject. Hopefully, there are sufficient links within the text and information in the bibliography section to allow the reader to delve further if he or she is interested.

Comments and feedback are welcome via the contact me page.

Bypass the Abstract


There is information on athletics dating back to ancient times, starting in Egypt around 3000BCE. However, the most detailed material comes to us from the ancient Greeks, whose Olympic Games commenced in 776BCE when we learn of various foot races, throwing events and the pentathlon.

They continued until 394CE, but there is no recorded information on formal events after that date until we reach the 17th century. There is of course mention of country-folk holding informal running, leaping and throwing competitions on feast days and at fairs at various times.

The story picks up speed after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when members of the nobility and gentry liked to bet on cards, dice and various sports. One favourite bet was a race between their respective footmen. “Pedestrians”, individuals who walk or run for money, appeared around the same time; some were no doubt the said footmen. Wagers covered individual feats of speed / endurance, as well as races.

The high stakes betting of the nobility and gentry gradually diminished in the early 19th century, but the pedestrians carried on without them – the wagers were simply smaller. The peak of pedestrianism arguably occurred around the middle of the 19th century.

It was at this time that the amateur ethos in sport began to appear in public schools, universities and beyond. This led to the appearance of the first amateur athletic clubs in the 1860s. In a manner not dissimilar to other sports, it was initially the preserve of the gentleman amateur.

The Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) was formed in 1880. As the sport grew, its main concern was to prevent the pedestrians from competing in amateur events, and in so doing to eliminate illegal betting. It had largely succeeded in this aim by the mid-1890s.

It was also in the 1890s that the modern Olympics were borne, the brainchild of Baron de Coubertin, with the first games being held in Athens in 1896. A marathon race, which was not part of the ancient Olympics, was included. Other long distance events such as the London to Brighton race date back to this period.

The 1920s was the peak period for the gentlemen amateur, personified by the characters in the Chariots of Fire film. However, their influence subsequently waned, as it had already done in other sports such as football and cricket. It was gradually recognised that English athletes who did not have the luxury of well-to-do parents would struggle when pitted against opponents who were trained at the State’s expense.

The gentlemen amateurs did have a one final hurrah with the success of Bannister, Chataway and Brasher in the early to mid-1950s, the pinnacle being the first sub-4 minute mile that was run by Bannister in 1954.

Apart from a relatively successful Olympics at Tokyo in 1964, the period up to 1978 saw generally modest performances on the track, coupled with athletes who struggled to live, train and compete within the amateur regime. Cricket (in 1963) and football (in 1975) had already abolished the concept of the amateur.

The period from 1978 to 1986 was a golden era on the track with Coe, Cram and Ovett dominating middle distance running while Thompson reigned supreme in the decathlon. It was during this period that there was movement on the amateur versus professional debate, resulting in the official sanctioning of trust funds for athletes.

This was followed in 1997 by prize money being offered at IAAF events, and the funding of athletes in the UK, mostly via income from the National Lottery. The latter has led to greater success for British athletes across many sports at the Olympics, Farah being the most notable in the world of athletics.   


Ancient Times
From the 12th to the 17th Century
The Beginning of Cross Country Running
The Arrival of the Amateur Ethos
Athletics at Oxbridge
Early Amateur Athletic Clubs
Early Venues
The Arrival of the Modern Olympics
1908 Olympic Games in London
The Marathon and Longer Distance Races
Women’s Athletics
English Schools Athletics Association
Zenith of the Gentleman Amateur
The Founding of Further International Championships
Indoor Athletics
Athletics for the Disabled
Post World War II
Sponsorship of the Sport
The Rocky Road from Amateurs to Professionals
Road Running and Jogging
On the Track from 1978
Large Invitation-only Meetings
Organisation Changes
Venues II
Odds and Sods
Bibliography and Further Reading
Version History

Ancient Times

Obviously, informal foot races, throwing competitions and the like would seem like very natural pastimes to have occurred in all parts of the world from time immemorial. Despite that throwaway statement, athletics still provides us with more comprehensive recorded information on its early history than any other sport, ranging from the ancient Egyptians through to the Greeks’ ancient Olympic Games.

Pharaoh going for his run – British Museum

The Sed Festival is quoted as a prime example of a ceremonial run in ancient Egypt. It was held to celebrate the continued rule of a pharaoh after he had ruled for 30 years, and to confirm that he was fit to continue. It was subsequently held every 3 years for that particular ruler. It is thought that this festival which appeared around 3000 BCE may have replaced a ritual of murdering a pharaoh who was no longer considered to be fit for office.

Another festival was the Tailteann Games in Ireland which started around the middle of the second millennium BCE to mourn the death of the foster mother of Lugh, a mythological deity and king. Hurling, wrestling, boxing and foot races were included in the list of events, along with non-sporting competitions such as storytelling and singing.

Discobolus of Myron – National Roman Museum Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

However, the most complete set of information comes to us from the ancient Greeks’ Olympic Games, originally a festival to honour Zeus, which was first held in 776 BCE. It was as much a religious festival as it was an athletics event, 100 oxen being sacrificed to Zeus in the middle of the games. They took place every 4 years, and were eventually joined by the Pythian, Nemian and Isthmian Games, which were collectively known as the Panhellenic Games. The Olympiad itself continued up to 394 CE when the Roman Emperor, Theodosius (who was a Christian), abolished all pagan festivals.

The range of events at the Olympiad changed over time. Stadion, a sprint along the full length of a straight track (circa. 180 metres), appeared in the first games. Longer distances eventually appeared: Diaulos (2 x 180 metres), Hoppios (4 x 180 metres) and Dolichos (circa. 3 miles). Meanwhile, the ancient Pentathlon was first contested in 708 BCE, consisting of 5 events which were held over the course of a single day. They comprised: discus throw, javelin throw, long jump, stadion and wrestling.

From the 12th to the 17th Century

There are various fleeting references across these centuries to running, leaping and throwing, although nothing substantial it has to be said.

William FitzStephen, a monk and cleric who worked for Thomas Beckett in the second half of the 12th century, wrote about London, describing young men who had space allotted to them outside the City, where they practiced, among other exercises, “leaping, wrestling, casting of the stone and playing with the ball”.

The daily amusements of Edward II, an otherwise troubled monarch in the early 14th century, were said to include “weight-putting, dancing, tilting, leaping and running”.

Henry VIII throwing the hammer – Stanley Berkeley

In the 16th century, at the time of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Elyot wrote The Boke Named The Governour in 1531 where he described how statesmen should be trained. He recommended a balanced approach which included sport as well as education. Running and jumping are both mentioned in his book.

And later in the same century, Randel Holme, a travelling minstrel, mentions popular sports in Lancashire which included throwing, leaping, jumping and running, which were practised by the common people on Sundays, feast days and at fairs.

Moving on to the 17th century, Ronald Burton wrote Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, where country sports are mentioned, including leaping and running.

The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 saw the appearance of sporting wagers, particularly among the nobility and the gentry. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, mentions several foot-races that he saw in the 1660s, including a “fine race three times round Hyde Park”.

Stanley Berkeley

There were some strange wagers, as Shearman mentioned in his book on Athletics and Football .. “a young gentleman, with a jockey booted and spurred on his back, ran a match against an elderly fat man (of the name of Bullock) running without a rider. The more extraordinary the wager the more excitement it often caused among the public. A fish-hawker is reported to have had a wager to run seven miles, from Hyde Park Corner to Brentford, with 56 lbs weight of fish on his head, in 45 minutes!”


The 18th century saw the emergence of large-scale betting among the nobility and gentry. Apart from clubs where card games and dice would be on offer, sport also attracted them (and their money), including wagers on horse racing, cricket, boxing and foot races.

A common wager might be a foot race between my footman and your footman. The poor state of roads and tracks at the time necessitated a servant who walked / jogged alongside, or behind, your carriage to ensure that there were no stones or tree roots which might impede the coach. He would also run ahead to prepare for the arrival at your destination. Such footmen would obviously have to be physically fit to perform their duties.


The competitions between footmen were arguably the precursors to pedestrianism, that is professional race walking and running.

As well as races, wagers were placed on individual feats, such as distances covered within a prescribed period of time. Foster Powell, arguably the first notable pedestrian, wagered that he could walk 50 miles in 7 hours which he did on the Bath Road in 1764. His other feats included walking from London to York and back (400 miles) in 1773; and walking 100 miles within 24 hours (he actually did it in in 21 hours 35 minutes). One of the most celebrated feats was achieved by Robert Barclay Allardice of Ury, known as Captain Barclay, who won 1,000 guineas for walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours in 1809. He was deemed to be the father of pedestrianism for this feat.

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Richard Manks, a walking champion

As with cricket, the large-scale betting habits of the nobility and gentry gradually diminished in the first part of the 19th century. Pedestrianism, albeit with much smaller wagers, continued without them, enjoying a particularly fruitful period in the 1840s and 1850s. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle printed the results of many matches, as they were called. For example, the January 2nd, 1842 edition prints details of matches which took place in the previous year, including information on the stake money involved.

Although much subsequent writing on pedestrianism tended to concentrate on walking, matches could just as well involve foot races.

The Beginning of Cross Country Running

Cross Country races, initially known as “hare and hounds” or “paper chases”, appeared in public schools around the 1830s. It is claimed that Shrewsbury School has the oldest cross country club, dating back to at least 1819.

The first English Schools Championships were held on Wimbledon Common in 1867. Meanwhile, at a senior level, the National Cross-Country Union was founded in 1883, changing its name to the English Cross-Country Union in 1933.

Fell Running was also established in the 19th century. Races were usually part of a local fair or sports day. Grasmere Sports is arguably the most celebrated event, dating back to the 1850s.

The Arrival of the Amateur Ethos

The word “amateur” appeared in the English language in the late 18th century. It has French and Italian origins, meaning “lover of”. The amateur ethos in sport arose in public schools in the early 19th century, and subsequently spread to universities and beyond.

Games were to be played purely for the love of it, and “fair play” was expected from participants who should not get over-excited in victory or downhearted in defeat. In addition, these amateurs tended to frown on training and even on watching games (when you should be taking part).

As well as athletics, rowing, cricket and football (both rugby and association) became bastions of the amateur ethos in the second half of the 19th century.

Athletics at Oxbridge

Athletics first appeared in a number of individual colleges before university clubs were established several years later.

Exeter College, Oxford held its first event in 1850 over two days with a cross country race (called a steeplechase) of 3 miles on the first day. Over at Cambridge, St. John’s College and Emmanuel College both held events in 1855.

A University Sports took place at Cambridge in 1857 which was subsequently claimed to be the beginning of the Cambridge University Athletics Club. Meanwhile, back at Oxford, the Oxford University Athletics Club was founded in 1860. These two events inevitably led to the first Varsity match between the universities which was held at Oxford in 1864.

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Inter-University Hurdle Race circa. 1875

The Arrival of Amateur Athletic Clubs

As with soccer and rugby, gentlemen amateurs, notably those from Oxbridge, wished to continue with athletics after they had finished their education. Early clubs to be established, included: West London Rowing Club’s Athletic Section (1861); Mincing Lane Athletics Club (1863) who drew its membership from the City and changed its name to London Athletic Club in 1866; the Civil Service Athletic Club (1866); Liverpool Athletic Club (1862) – not related to Liverpool Harriers which was formed in 1882; and Peckham Hounds (1869) who became Blackheath Harriers.

I have not mentioned the Amateur Athletic Club (AAC) which was formed in 1865. It was the most exclusive club at the time, the creation of John Chambers. Limiting its membership to gentlemen, it organised the first national amateur athletics championships in 1866. It had no great desire to govern the sport. Unfortunately, its active athletes soon preferred to align themselves with the London Athletic Club, and it eventually ceased to hold any meetings except the national championships.

Amateur athletics grew rapidly during the 1870s and 1880s, as it became less exclusive. For example, London AC had 900 members by 1874 and Blackheath Harriers 200 by 1883. There were 45 affiliated clubs in 1880, rising to 185 by 1887.

The Amateur AC’s national championships gradually lost its prestige during the 1870s, and the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) was formed in 1880 at a meeting which was instigated by three Oxford alumni and former athletes who recognised the need for a single authoritative body: Clement Jackson, Montague Shearman and Bernhard Wise. The first AAA Championships were held at Lillie Bridge, West London in the same year.

The AAA took some tentative steps to remove the gentlemen amateur tag of exclusivity. In truth, with the growth of the sport, it was difficult to do otherwise. Their main focus was more on banning pedestrians, i.e. professionals, from their events, including professionals from other sports. In 1892 they implemented a rule to ban expenses, although they eventually permitted travel expenses from 1899. Perhaps, by that time, they felt that they were winning the battle against professionalism. It should be said that professional athletes at this stage were invariably working men who tried to supplement their income by competing for money prizes. They were a far cry from today’s full-time athletes.

Early Venues

The Lillie Bridge Grounds were sited in West Brompton, London, and came into existence in 1866. As well as athletics, it hosted a number of other sporting events, including the 1873 FA Cup Final. It was burned down (arson) in 1887.

And so, the AAA championships moved to Stamford Bridge which had been built in 1877, primarily for the use of London AC. Note that Chelsea FC was not founded until 1905. They remained there until 1932 when they transferred to White City, as Stamford Bridge was being increasingly used for speedway.

The Arrival of the Modern Olympics

Pierre de Coubertin – Dutch National Archives

Baron de Coubertin, a French educator and historian, was the mastermind behind the establishment of the Modern Olympics. His advocacy for the games centred on a number of ideals about sport. He believed that the early ancient Olympics encouraged competition among amateur rather than professional athletes, and saw value in that. He also considered that athletic competition could promote understanding across cultures, and so reduce the dangers of war.

Coubertin spent some time liaising with William Penny Brookes who had encouraged local Olympic Games in England, starting with the games at Much Wenlock in Shropshire in 1850. However, Coubertin’s ideas centred on international competition. He persuaded the Greeks to fund the first modern games which were held in Athens in 1896. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed after the congress which agreed to hold the first games. Coubertin subsequently became its second President.

1908 Olympic Games in London

The 1908 games were originally scheduled to take place in Rome. However, Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, causing significant damage to Naples. The upshot was that London stepped in as the replacement venue The White City stadium, holding 68,000, was built within 12 months with a track that was 536 metres in length, i.e. there were 3 laps to a mile. The games were successful, but they suffered from a number of political and sporting controversies, including the Americans accusing the Brits of some biased judging.

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Opening Ceremony for the 1908 Olympics

The Marathon and Longer Distances

The marathon, which was not actually part of the ancient games, had been introduced by Coubertin in 1896 in commemoration of Pheidippides’ run from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BCE. The race was set to be 25 miles in length.

However, to accommodate royal wishes that it should start beneath the Royal Nursery in Windsor and finish where the King was seated in the stadium, the 1908 race distance was set at 26 miles 385 yards. And this, slightly bizzarely, became the marathon distance from that time onwards.

The race at the 1908 Olympics was organised by (London) Polytechnic Harriers who subsequently set up their own marathon event which was held annually from 1909 until 1996.

Although there were many examples of longer distance feats, it was London to Brighton, a distance of circa. 50 miles depending on where the start and finish lines were located, that became the most celebrated route for walkers, and eventually runners, not to mention car races. Captain Robertson and John Bell each walked the route in the early years of the 19th century. However, it was to be 1897 before the first organised race walk took place and 1899 before the first foot race.


Amateur athletics became established in most major countries around the same time, viz. the late Victorian era. None could be said to have invented the modern sport, as had happened with the likes of soccer and cricket.

The early 1900s turned out to be a popular time for creating world governing bodies in many sports, and unsurprisingly the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) was founded in 1912 in Stockholm after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games that had been held in that city. There were 17 founder-members, including Great Britain.

Similar to other governing bodies, it was around the 1970s before the IAAF took measures to expand the sport, mainly by introducing new world events.

The name of the organisation was changed in 2001 when the word “amateur” was removed, and it became the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Women’s Athletics

The AAA never showed any inclination to take control of all aspects of the sport. By 1981 there were, in fact, 19 separate organisations who were involved in the administration and management of athletics. Women’s athletics was one such area, and so an autonomous organisation, the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association (WAAA), was set up in 1922, holding its first national championships in the following year.

Just as women suffered in soccer where the FA took against them playing the game in the 1920s, so they struggled to gain acceptance in athletics where some saw it as “not ladylike”, and others even thought that a decline in the birth rate may result from their participation. They were not allowed to compete in many events for quite some time, as shown by the following examples of when events were first held at the Olympics: 1500 metres (1964), marathon (1984), hammer throw (2000), and triple jump (1996).

The first Olympics to include any women’s events was 1928 in Amsterdam, but it was 1932 before British women took part. It should be noted that British men spoke against women’s participation in the Olympics at an IOC meeting in 1926.

English Schools Athletics Association

While track and field events date back to the 1830s in public schools, it was 1925 before the English Schools Athletics Association held its first championships. Cross country championships followed for boys in 1960, and for girls in 1968.

Zenith of the Gentleman Amateur

This occurred in the 1920s, slightly later than other sports where their influence had declined after World War I.

Harold Abrahams – Gallica Digital Library

The Achilles Athletics Club was formed in 1920 for past and present members of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, quickly becoming the most renowned club in the country. Members included Harold Abrahams, Douglas Lowe and Lord Burghley who were all Olympic Gold Medallists during this decade. Along with Eric Liddell, the Scotsman who won the 400m at the 1924 games, they are best known from the film, Chariots of Fire, which centred on the Paris games in 1924.

The growth of the sport – there were around 1,000 clubs affiliated to the AAA by 1930 – and general changes in society contributed to the decline of the gentleman amateur in the 1930s. Britain’s poor showing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics started to convince people that the amateur ethos was not likely to win out when matched against other countries whose athletes were trained at the State’s expense.

Sydney Wooderson (Churchman cigarette cards)

As one small first step to improve matters, the AAA held a summer school at Loughborough in 1934, and they followed it up by setting up a School of Athletics, Games and Physical Education at Loughborough College in 1936.

Sydney Wooderson, a City solicitor who was neither part of the Achilles circle nor classed as a gentleman amateur, became the most successful English athlete in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a middle distance runner who broke the world record for the mile in 1937, and for both the 880 yards and 800 metres in the following year. As if to indicate that he lacked the advantages of the gentleman amateur, he missed the 1938 Empire Games because he was taking his law finals. After World War II, he won the 5000 metres at the 1946 European Championships.  

The Founding of Further International Championships

The 1930s saw the establishment of the British Empire Games and the European Athletics Championships.

The first British Empire Games, now called the Commonwealth Games, were held in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1930. They are held every 4 years. In 2018 England ranked 2nd, behind Australia, in the all-time medals table.

The European Athletics Championships followed in 1934 when they were held in Turin, Italy. Their frequency has varied over time, between 2 and 4 years. In 2018 GB ranked 2nd, behind Russia, in the all-time medals table.  

Indoor Athletics

It can perhaps be said that indoor athletics became established in England in the 1930s.

There are actually several instances of indoor athletics taking place in England in the 19th century: 1859 at Lambeth Baths; 1863 at Ashburnham Hall in Cremona Gardens (in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea); and 1877 at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington (now the Business Design Centre). None could be described as meetings in the accepted sense of the word. Ashburnham Hall had just 4 events in the programme, while the other two only had a single race.

The real home of indoor athletics was in the United States where they became established in the late 19th century.

It was not until 1935 that the first AAA Indoor Championships were held at the Wembley Arena, eventually transferring to RAF Cosford in 1965 where they remained until 1991. RAF Cosford had had a track since 1955.

Athletics for the Disabled

Organised sport for the disabled can be split into three main categories: deaf, people with physical disabilities and those with intellectual disabilities.

The first games for the deaf took place in Paris in 1924, being known as the Silent Games. They evolved into the modern Deaflympics which are organised by CISS (Comité International des Sports des Sourds or The International Committee of Sports for the Deaf). 

There had been an unfortunately named “Cripples Olympiad” in the USA in 1911. However, it was arguably Ludwig Guttmann who pioneered sport for the physically disabled, as part of the rehabilitation program at Stoke Mandeville Hospital where many injured people from World War II were treated. In 1948, while the Olympic Games were taking place in London, he organised a sports competition for wheelchair athletes, which subsequently grew into the Stoke Mandeville Games, from which sprouted both the IWAS World Games and the Paralympic Games. The first Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960, expanding in 1975 to include those with limb amputations and visual impairments, while individuals with cerebral palsy were allowed to compete from 1980.

Sport for persons with intellectual disabilities began to be organized in the 1960s through the Special Olympics movement. This grew out of a series of summer camps organized by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, beginning in 1962. In 1968 the first international Special Olympics were held in Chicago.

Finally, and most recently, the Invictus Games were created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans take part in a variety of sports. The first games were held in London in 2014.

Post World War II

The early and mid-1950s saw a highly successful period for selected members of the Achilles club, viz. Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. Bannister is the most celebrated, being the first man to break the 4 minute mile barrier at Oxford in 1954, with Brasher and Chataway acting as his pacemakers. Chataway went on to break the 5,000 metres world record in the same summer, while Brasher won the Olympic Gold medal in the 3,000 metres steeplechase at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

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Roger Bannister

Away from Achilles AC, two other Englishmen broke world records in the 1950s: Gordon Pirie amassed 5 in middle and long distance events, while Derek Ibbotson broke the world record for the mile in 1957.

Ann Packer
Ann Packer – Dutch National Archives

In the 1960s it was at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that Britain were most successful: with gold medals for Mary Rand and Lyn Davis in the long jumps, Ann Packer in the 800m and Ken Matthews in the 20km walk; plus 7 silver medals.

The 1970s saw disappointing performances at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics with the sole exception of Mary Peters’ gold medal in the women’s pentathlon in Munich. Brendan Foster flew the flag for the men in this decade, winning the 5,000 metres in the 1974 European Championships along with a bronze medal in the 10,000 metres at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

Sponsorship of the Sport

The end of World War II temporarily signalled a major increase in attendances at sports events and other entertainments, as people tried to put the horror of the conflict behind them. However, the 1950s saw a decline which continued through the 1960s. For example, the AAA Championships attracted 17,000 in 1959, but it was down to just over 4,000 in 1970.

From the late 1950s onwards, athletics could no longer exist solely on gate money. It was around this period that sponsorship was sought. Initially, it was very discreet, but it became more open in the 1960s when the AAA entered into agreements with the Carborundum Company, the Daily Herald, Pepsi Cola and notably with the News of the World.

The income derived through sponsorship gradually increased over time, and by 1980 it had reached £1m per annum, a similar sum to that being received by golf. Even that figure was surpassed when, in 1984, the AAA entered into a £10m+ deal over 4 years with ITV, in return for granting them exclusive TV coverage of British athletics.

The Rocky Road from Amateurs to Professionals

Am I allowed to use the word “professional”? As far as I can tell, it appears to be a word that does not exist in the modern athletics lexicon.

The amateur ethos was dying quickly in many major sports after World War II. The problem was with illegal payments being made to athletes .. what had become known as shamateurism. It was mainly a problem among elite athletes at the top end of a sport, but it was a major problem nonetheless.

While other sports struggled to accept that payments to amateurs were indefensible, they did manage it in the end. Cricket abolished the difference between amateurs and professionals in 1963, and football followed suit in 1975.

In the case of athletics, the process took longer, possibly because the circumstances were different. In both cricket and football, it had been possible within the rules to be an unpaid amateur or a paid professional. However, mainstream athletics was just an amateur sport which made life difficult for individuals who did not come from well-to-do families.

In general, relations between administrators and athletes were not good. The former (Abrahams, Burghley, Crump  et al) came from the gentlemen amateur era of the 1920s, whereas the vast majority of active athletes in the post-war period did not.

Society had moved on after World War II. It had become more multi-cultural. There were international influences in the areas of music, food and culture. The Victorian / Edwardian class system was under severe pressure, e.g. in the theatre with the likes of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and the start of the swinging 60s. And finally, there was a notable increase in the amount of international competition within sport. Not surprisingly, the elders in the sport struggled to adapt to the mores of the modern world.

The Melbourne Olympics in 1956 was a time of particularly strained relationships between administrators and athletes. There were problems over pocket money which athletes from other countries were already receiving, but the British were not. There was also the arcane decision to separate male and female athletes on the plane to Australia, and unsurprisingly there was an Oxbridge clique. All this led to the setting up of the International Athletes Club (IAC) in 1958 to represent the interests of the athletes.

The 1960s did start to see some signs of assistance for athletes, albeit from outside organisations. Arthur Rowe, the shot putter, had paid leave from the National Coal Board when competing – called broken-time payments in other sports – while Robbie Brightwell, the 400m runner, had a trip to the USA to compete paid for by the News of the World. Both were of course, strictly speaking, against the letter of the amateur code. The remainder of the 1960s and the 1970s saw other instances of shamateurism, but the administrators, perhaps wisely, did not dig too deeply into what was going on.

After the poor showing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) did manage to put £160k aside, with assistance from the Sport Aid Foundation, to fund athletes’ preparations for the 1980 Olympics.

Finally and somewhat belatedly, the IAAF abandoned the traditional concept of amateurism in 1982, and by 1985 it had created the concept of trust funds for athletes. It was a system whereby appearance money, income from individual sponsorship, which was mainly limited to top athletes, and advertising contracts all went into the fund. The athlete could draw on the fund for travel and living expenses, but the idea was that the majority of the funds would not be touched until the athlete retired.

Subventions (or grants) also appeared in 1985, the money initially coming out of the ITV deal pot. Only selected athletes received them, and the amount varied from athlete to athlete.

During this period of change, administrators tried to dictate when and where athletes could compete abroad. Needless to say the athletes fought against this.

Eventually, IAAF Competition Awards offered prize money from 1997. In the same year UK Sport began to fund athletes in the run up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Income came principally from the National Lottery. This scheme continued in succeeding Olympic cycles with the WCP (World Class Programme) for potential medal winners and APA (Athlete Performance Award). Circa. £27m has been made available for the Tokyo Games cycle (2017-2020).

So, professional athletes arguably arrived at some point between 1985 and 1997, although the word “professional” seems not to be used.

Road Running (and jogging)

Jogging became very popular in the 1970s, starting in the US when the likes of Steve Prefontaine and Jim Fixx promoted it. Many individuals were attracted by the health benefits, and although some became members of athletics clubs, the vast majority did not. They were (and are) just as likely to don their gear at home, step out of the door and run / jog.

The New York City Marathon of 1976 took a new route, travelling through the city’s five boroughs. It is viewed as the first mass participation marathon where joggers could participate. The idea was an instant hit which spread to other cities around the world, with London holding its first marathon in 1979, an event that was organised by Chris Brasher, the steeplechase gold medallist from the Melbourne Olympics back in 1956.

A multitude of half-marathons subsequently appeared. They were arguably more popular than full marathons, particularly with joggers as they probably seemed a more feasible target. The Great North Run, originally organised by Brendan Foster in 1981, is the most popular half-marathon in England.

On the track from 1978

The unsuccessful period in the early and mid-1970s was followed by a golden era from 1978 to 1986 when Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett dominated middle distance running, while Daley Thompson reigned supreme in the men’s decathlon. Their careers were littered with a stream of medals from all the major championships, along with many world records.

It was during this period that the first IAAF World Championships were held in Helsinki in 1983 when Cram and Thompson both won gold medals. In 2018, Britain ranked 6th in the all-time medal list for these championships.

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Daley Thompson competing at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton

The most successful athletes in the 1990s were the sprinter Linford Christie and triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, while in more recent times Mo Farah, heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford in the long jump have had successful careers, winning gold medals at the major championships. Farah is the most successful British athlete ever with 4 Olympic, 6 World and 5 European Championship gold medals.

Large Invitation-only Meetings

Oslo and Zurich are arguably the most celebrated one-day meetings, both dating back to 1920s. Oslo’s meeting, which became known as the Bislett Games in 1965, has seen a remarkable number of world records, mainly in middle and long distance running. Indeed, three world records were set in one evening at the 1985 meeting. The Weltklasse Zurich is sometimes known as the one-day Olympics. It too has seen a significant number of world records.

London (starting with the Coca Cola Games in 1968), Brussels and Berlin joined the list of what became known as Grand Prix meetings. Eventually, the IAAF created the Golden League in 1999 which consisted of a series of one-day meetings in the above places, along with a number of others. In turn, it was replaced by the Diamond League in 2010.

Organisation changes

The AAA of England was formed in 1991, following the merger of the AAA and the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association

The creation in 1999 of a new national governing body for athletics, UK Athletics, signalled the waning influence of the AAA and its championships, with the new body running its own British Athletics Championships and trials events indoors and outdoors from 2007 onwards.

The AAA now supports regional athletic clubs and works to develop amateur and youth category athletics in England alone. This includes the English Cross Country Association.  

Venues II

The AAA Championships moved from White City to the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre and Stadium in 1971 where it remained until 1987. London Grand Prix meetings were held there until 2012.

While a number of venues have been used for major UK athletics meetings over the last 30 years, the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham has been the most used venue.

Finally, the London Olympic stadium was built for the 2012 games. It has only been used for athletics on a small number of occasions since then, most notably for the 2017 IAAF World Championships. West Ham United, the soccer club, have played their home matches in the stadium since 2016. Along with UK Athletics, they are the primary tenants, although the venue is used to hold other events.

Odds and Sods

The move to metric distances. The IAAF removed all imperial measured events from its world record lists in 1976, except for the one mile run which is retained due to its historical importance in athletics.

Pole. The pole vault appeared at the Tailteann games in Ireland in the second millennium BCE, and subsequently at the Olympics of the ancient Greeks. Competitors in the 19th century used wooden poles, typically made of ash. They were followed by bamboo poles prior to World War II and fibreglass poles in the 1950s. More recently, carbon fibre has been incorporated to produce a lighter pole.

Timing devices. There are various claims as to the date of the first stopwatch, dating from 1776 to 1821. The first quartz watch appeared around 1960 and was used in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. And the 1970s saw the advent of digital timing.

Early kit. Cricket whites were initially worn at the universities in the 1850s, but they were gradually replaced by tops which covered the shoulders and shorts which covered the knees. There were no track suits in the early days. Athletes might wear a coat to keep warm before events, particularly as some of them took place in February and March, notably at the universities.

Running shoes. Spikes, originally little more than nails driven through the sole of a shoe, are attributed to Joseph Williams Foster around 1850. It was to be the 1890s before they were being sold commercially. Shoes with rubber soles, called sneakers, appeared around the same time. 1960 saw the advent of New Balance Tracksters. With a rippled outsole, it provided better traction and reduced shock. They led to the explosion in running shoes design which started in the 1970s and included features such as air-cushioning.

Early tracks. They were mainly turf. The first cinder track may have been a converted pony track in Sheffield in 1835. Lord’s Cricket Ground had the first curved cinder track which was built in 1837. It appears to have been 660 yards in length, and was only five feet wide (this was the age of match races – one individual versus another). Cinder tracks gradually became the norm in the late 19th century. Synthetic tracks began to appear in the late 1960s. Tokyo (1964) was the last Olympics to use a cinder track.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Crump, J., Sport in Britain: A Social History (section on athletics), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989
Shearman, M., Athletics and Football, Longmans Green, 1889
Lovesey, P., Morley, K., British Athletics 1866-1880, National Union of Track Statisticians, 2016

Web links

Athletics Archive – History of Athletics
National Union of Track Statisticians
Ancient Egyptian Sport
History of running
Tailteann Games (ancient)
Sport of athletics (Wikipedia)
Olympic origins
Olympic Games (Wikpedia)
Ancient Olympic Games (Wikipedia)
Brief history of IAAF
Cross country running (Wikipedia)
Fell running (Wikipedia)
History of Cambridge University Athletics Club
History of Oxford University Athletics Club
Montague Shearman’s book on Athletics and Football
Brief history of disability sports
Paralympic_Games (Wikipedia)
History of indoor athletics
Road Runners Club (UK)
History of London to Brighton events
Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (January 1842) please note that you need to register with British Newspaper Archive to view this page.


Thanks to Peter Jackson for reading the original draft and commenting on it.

The majority of the images that are used in this document are embedded Getty images and Wikimedia/Commons. In addition, I have included a couple of images which can be found in Montague Shearman’s book. Anybody who considers that I have infringed copyright should contact me.

All errors are mine.

Version History

Version 0.1 – February 5. 2019 – draft
Version 1.0 – February 18, 2019
Version 1.1 – March 28, 2019 – some minor additions.