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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March 2004, 19:09 GMT
Olympic focal point
Marion Jones
Marion Jones is the latest star of American athletics
The athletics events have been at the very heart of the Olympics since the ancient Games at Olympia.

Since the simple foot races, jumping, discus and javelin events that marked the early Games in Greece, the basic tests of speed and strength have remained a key element of the modern Olympics.

Athletics was an integral part of the first Athens Games in 1896, with medals awarded for the 100m, 1,500m, 110m hurdles, marathon, long jump, triple jump, pole vault, discus, shot put and high jump.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation was founded in 1912 by 17 national athletic federations.

At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, women's events - 100m, 800m, 4x100m, high jump, and discus - were included on the programme for the first time.

The USA won nine of the 11 gold medals on offer in the 1896 Games and they remain the powerhouse nation of the sport.

Jesse Owens was the first real star of the track, becoming a legendary figure following his four gold medals and six world records at the 1936 Berlin Games.

The African-American's achievements were all the more telling as they took place in front of Adolf Hitler.

Jesse Owens broke five world records and equalled a sixth in the space of 45 minutes in Berlin in 1936
Despite the USA's domination of the medals table, there have been plenty of ahtletes from other nations to secure their places in sporting history.

Finnish distance runners Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren, as well as Czech Emil Zatopek, Ethiopia's Abebe Bekila in the marathon, Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and American Bob Beamon in the long jump all made their mark.

Among the women, sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, Poland's Irena Sewinska-Irszentstein in the long jump and sprints, and more recently American sprinter Marion Jones became worldwide stars.

The arrival of Carl Lewis on the world stage at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, when he won four gold medals, put leading athletes on a different plane.

With the demands of training and competing pushed to a new level, the IAAF - which had abandoned the traditional concept of amateurism in 1982 - allowed trust funds for athletes in 1985.

In 1997 the IAAF offered prize money to successful athletes for the first time in the history of its competitions.

The other topic that has dogged athletics, as it has so many sports in recent years, is drugs.

It was at the 1988 Seoul Olympics that the issue hit the headlines around the world as Canada's Ben Johnson left Lewis trailing with a stunning time of 9.79secs in the 100m final, before failing a drugs test.

There have been plenty more high-profile track and field stars to test positive in the intervening years, but so far athletics has been able to retain its position as the focal point of the Olympic Games.

MEDAL TABLE (Top five)
Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
Men (since 1896)
USA 267 197 163 627
Finland 48 33 38 119
Great Britain 43 63 43 149
Soviet Union 37 37 42 116
Sweden 17 25 41 83
Women (since 1928)
USA 43 25 20 88
Soviet Union 34 29 35 98
East Germany 24 23 21 68
Australia 12 10 12 34
Germany 10 12 16 38

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