The Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger), sums up athletics. Man has run, jumped and lifted weapons for hunting and fighting for millions of years, pursuits that formed a core part of the ancient Games at Olympia. The first Olympic running champion was Coroebus, a Greek sprinter who won the the stadion, a race run over a distance of about 193 metres, in 776BC. Those were the days when men raced on dirt tracks in military armour, complete with shields, and women stayed at home, not even allowed to watch. Running races at Olympia involved races around pillars at either end of a narrow track.

In the sphere of track and field, there are at least two events that precede the ancient Greeks and running races. The pole vault formed part of the ancient Irish Taliteann Games in 1829BC, the origins of the activity stemming from the use of poles to jump over streams. Wood was used up until the 19th century, when bamboo from Asia was deemed better for the purpose. The hammer, too, was thrown at the Taliteann Games.

The most famous of all track and field events in history is, arguably, a road race; the marathon. Legend has it that the race was devised by the Greeks to commemorate Pheidippides, a soldier who ran 25 miles to bring home news of the Athenian victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides ran, yelled out the great news and then dropped dead, so the story goes. In honour of the soldier who went the extra mile, the marathon of the ancient Games was run over 26 miles.

The race played second fiddle to the first 'blue riband' event of the ancient Games, the pentathlon, which appeared in 708BC. It incorporated discus and javelin throwing, long jump, wrestling and running. The aim, as with today's decathlon, was to find the best and toghest all-round athlete. Inevitably it was a knockout competition that attracted the fiercest of the soldier classes. Those who jump the farthest progressed to the javelin, after which four athletes ran a sprint race, the best three threw the discus and the two left standing wrestled until one dropped of exhaustion and the victor was declared.

Pentathlon has provided the Olympic movement with many of its lasting images. "Discobolus", the sculpted athlete throwing a discus, is one of the most famous works of art from ancient Greece and is synonymous with all things Olympic. The ancient long (or broad) jump, and indeed the activity of jumpers in the 19th century, differed in one significant way to today's event; athletes were not only wind-assisted but weight-assisted, carrying with them as they ran towards the sand pit weights to give them greater momentum for the jump.

That might account for the apparent excellence of one early jumper; in 656BC, records suggest, a man called Chionis leapt a distance equivalent to 7m 5cm. If correct, that would have won him the inaugural Olympic title of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 and placed him among the top eight at a further ten Olympics up to and including the 1952 Games of Helsinki.

Chionis was also a triple jumper capable of reaching up to 16 metres. The rearly rules of such multi-jumps are unclear, however. Such a distance under modern rules would have won Chionis the modern Olympic title right up until 1952.

For the ancient Greeks, the javelin was thrown not for distance but for accuracy, more like archery, one reason, perhaps, behind Napoleon's decision to order a study of the javelin as a potential weapon of war in the 19th century.

The last ancient Games were held in 394AD. It would be about 700 years before athletics events would figure in records again. The earliest recorded competition dates back to England in 1154 and between 1612 and 1852 runners raced in Robert Dover's "Olympick Games". The 19th century witnessed a significant growth in the popularity of the sport and the first athletics club, Necton Guild, was formed in Suffolk, England, in 1817. In 1834, time standards for fixed race distances of a five-minute mile and a ten-minute two miles race were established in England, from 1850 onwards, the Much Wenlock Olympian Games in Shropshire attracted a wide following, while Oxford and Cambridge held the first university track competition in 1864.

The first English athletics championships were held in England in 1866 and gradually road races and running on horse tracks and in open fields on grass and mud gave way to specially prepared circular cinder or clay tracks. By 1896 England had more running tracks than the rest of Europe combined. The sports popularity soon spread westwards to the United States, which has dominated athletics ever since.

Athletics is arguably the most popular of Olympic sports, has arguably generated the most controversy because of the issues that drugs has raised, and has provided the Games with some of its biggest names, from Jim Thorpe, to Bob Beamon and Carl Lewis. It is also the biggest event at the Games in terms of competitors, with 2,000 athletes set to take part in Sydney.