The sport that best defines the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius ("Faster, Higher, Stronger") athletics has been ever-present since the first Olympic Games in Antiquity, in 776 BC. It was then that Corebus of Elis became the first Olympic champion, winning the stadion, a sprint of about 192 metres.

Subsequently, a number of other running, jumping and throwing events were added. The pentathlon, which combined the stadion, the long jump, the discus, the javelin and wrestling, became particularly popular. 

Thanks to its tradition and popularity, athletics took a prominent place in the programme at the first Modern Games in 1896. Twelve medals were up for grabs in Athens, all in men only events. In 1912, in order to standardise rules, criteria and world records, a group of 17 countries formed what has now evolved into the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Women first competed at the Amsterdam 1928 Games.

Currently, the Olympic programme is divided into track and field, road running, race walking and combined events. On the track there are flat races for men and women (100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m), relay races for men and women (4x100m and 4x400m), hurdling races (110m for men, 100m for women and 400m for men and women ) and the steeplechase for men and women (3,000m). The marathon (42.195 km) and race walking (20km and 50 km) which are all for men and women bar the 50km walk, take place on the road. 

Field events include the long jump, triple jump, high jump and pole vault, as well as the shot put and hammer throw, javelin and discus.

In the combined events men compete in the decathlon and women in the penthalon. Both are held on two consecutive days. In the decathlon, men compete in the 100m, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump, the 400m, the 110m hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin and the 1,500m. Women take part in seven events in the heptathlon: the 100m hurdles, the high jump, the shot put, the 200m, the long jump, the javelin and the 800m.

In athletics, events begin with eliminatory heats. The best competitors or teams advance to the final. The system is different in the combined events: each athlete earns points for their performance, with the highest total the winner.