Running In The Olympics: An Essential Guide To The Rio 2016 Running Events, Their Distances, And The History Of Running In The Olympics

Which Olympic events feature running, and which countries traditionally win medals?

Since the first Olympics in 776 BC, running has always been a feature of the Games.

Since a bunch of completely naked Athenians started the Olympics in 776 BC, running has always been a significant event in the world of sport. In fact, running itself is such a fundamental aspect of the Olympics that it’s even paid tribute to in the official Olympic motto: “Faster, Higher, Stronger” (translated from the Latin – “Citius, Altius, Fortius”).

Rio 2016 Olympics : Medal Contenders In The Men’s 10,000 Metres And 5,000 Metres Running Events

Like London 2012 before it, Rio 2016 will prove to be no exception on the running front. Sprint, middle-distance, steeple-chase, and long-distance; think of a running event, and you can bet your running shoes that it’s happening at this summer’s Olympics. To get you right up to speed with all-things running at the Olympics, we’ve put together this essential guide of what the events are and the history behind them.

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Long-Distance Running at the Olympics

Pictured: Female marathon runners competing at London 2012.

Long-distance running is classified as any distance over 3.10 miles (5 km). Events in the Olympics that fall within this bracket include:

  • 5,000 metres
  • 10,000 metres
  • Marathon – just over 26 miles

These three disciplines are all about endurance, and tactics. Long-distance runners at the Rio 2016 Olympics will be familiar with a popular saying that says, “you can’t win a long-distance race in the first mile, but you can lose it.” In other words, runners who start the race too fast are at greater risk of tiring in the later stages.

Historically, the most successful long-distance runners are the masters at picking their moment to accelerate. Go too early, and they could run out of steam. Go too late, and they’ll be unable to overtake the leader before crossing the finishing line.

Long-Distance Running – Olympic Medal Winners

5,000 Metres

Pictured: Mo Farah winning the 5,000 metre final at London 2012.

The most successful countries ever in men’s 5,000 metres at the Olympics, if you judge success on gold medals won rather than most medals won overall, are Finland, Ethiopia, and Morocco. Kenya, as you can see below, have won an impressive nine medals in men’s 5,000 metres but only one gold. Finland, interestingly, haven’t won an Olympic gold in men’s 5,000 metres since 1976.

Screenshot: Wikipedia (5,000 metres at the Olympics) – Men’s Event

British running fans will, of course, remember that our very own Quorn-munching Mo Farah (aka “The Mo-bot”) scooped the 5,000 metres gold medal for Team GB at London 2012. This was Britain’s first ever gold medal in the 5,000 metres, and we’ll all be hoping he can repeat his success in Rio this summer.

10,000 Metres

One quick look at the record books will tell you that until the British long-distance runner Mo Farah won the gold in the 10,000 metres at London 2012 (to go with his success in the 5,000 metres), modern 10,000 metre running has been dominated by Ethiopians.

Legendary long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, for example, won men’s gold at Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. In 2004 and 2008, Haile’s fellow countryman Kenenisa Bekele won the gold medal. Recent history for the women’s 10,000 metres event tells a similar story with Derartu Tulu picking up gold for Ethiopia in 1992 and 2000, and Tirunesh Dibaba doing the same in 2008 and 2012.

Screenshot: Wikipedia (10,000 metres at the Olympics) – Men’s Event.

As with the 5,000 metres event, Kenya seem to have developed a record for “always being the bridesmaid, never the bride.” Their record of men’s 10,000 metre medals won overall is impressive with Kenyans standing on the podium seven times, which is the third best behind Finland and, you guessed it, Ethiopia. However, only once in Olympic history has a Kenyan been on the podium to collect a gold medal for 10,000 metres (Naftali Temu at Mexico 1968).


Marathon running is, without doubt, one of the ultimate tests of Olympic endurance. It takes a special type of athlete to master it, and then come out on top over a distance just over 26 miles. As with the other long-distance Olympic running events, Ethiopia have great record in both the men’s and women’s marathons.

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Ethiopian Fatuma Roba won the women’s event in 1996, with her fellow countrywoman Tiki Gelana repeating her feat in 2012. Japan are the most successful nation ever when it comes to women’s marathon running (winning four medals overall).

In the men’s event, Ethiopia are the top dogs with four gold medals overall. Three of these, however, came during the course of consecutive victories in 1960, 1964, and 1968. Worryingly for the Ethiopian Team, they’re on a bit of a drought in this event and haven’t actually won a gold in the men’s marathon since Gezahegne Abera at the Sydney 2000 Games.

Screenshot: Wikipedia (Marathons at the Olympics) – Men’s Event.
Screenshot: Wikipedia (Marathons at the Olympics) – Women’s Event.

Middle-Distance Running at the Olympics

Pictured: Hicham El Guerrouj celebrates his world record in the 1,500 metres.

Middle-distance running is classified as any track-based event above a sprint, that’s less than 3,000 metres. At the Olympics, running events that fall into this category are as follows:

  • 800 metres
  • 1,500 metres

The middle-distance running events at the Olympics, especially the 800 metres, are genuine lung-busters. The 800 metres was included in the first women’s track programme in 1928, but was then suspended until 1960 because of the physical shock it heaped upon the body. Without the aid of modern training facilities, men of the early 800m era were expected to run themselves into a state of complete exhaustion.

Arguably the most tactical of running events, certainly of the middle-distance bracket, the 1,500 metre tests athletes both mentally and physically. Races are often won and lost in the final few metres, with the runners involved having to maintain almost sprint-level speeds throughout in order to compete. The world record for 1,500 metres, currently held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, saw an astonishing average lap time of 55 seconds (3:26.00 WR).

Middle-Distance Running – Olympic Medal Winners

800 Metres

Pictured: David Rudisha of Kenya winning the 800 metres at London 2012.

Historically, the men’s 800 metres at the Olympics has been dominated by the USA and Great Britain. This fact, however, does not tell the full story as neither of the two nations have had a gold medalist in the men’s event since Tom Courtney won gold for the USA in 1956.

In recent times, the men’s 800 metres has been all about the dominance of Kenya’s middle-distance runners. The Kenyans have picked up Olympic gold in four of the last seven men’s 800 metre events (1988, 1992, 2008, and 2012). David Rudisha is the current reigning champion in the Olympic’s men’s 800 metres. Rudisha won London 2012 with an astonishing world-record time of 1:40:91.

1,500 Metres

Pictured: Britain’s Seb Coe And Steve Ovett’s rivalry defined middle-distance running in the 1980s.

The world record for the 1,500 metres is held by Kenyan Noah Ngeny. Ngeny, Olympic gold medal winner in the year 2000, ran the distance in 3:32.07. As it is with the 800 metres event, Kenyans are a real powerhouse of 1,500 metre running – winning two of the last four men events at the Olympics.

The reigning Olympic champion for the men’s 1,500 metres event is the Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi. The reigning champion of the women’s 1,500 metres event is Turkish middle-distance runner Gamze Bulut. Bulut originally came second at London 2012 behind team-mate Aslı Çakır Alptekin. However after Alptekin was disqualified for using banned substances, Bulut was consequently recognised as a reigning Olympic champion for the 1,500 metres.

Other Olympic Events Featuring Running


Pictured: Usain Bolt celebrates a win at the Beijing 2015 World Championships.

Dominated by Usain Bolt and the Jamaicans in recent years, sprinting at the Olympics consists of the 100 metres, the 200 metres, the 400 metres, and the various team relays.


The hurdling events at the Olympics are almost completely identical in distance to the sprinting-distance events discussed above. Unlike in normal sprinting events, however, these events feature hurdles (hence the name) that competitors must jump over. The event distances for men are 110 metres and 400 metres, while the women compete in 100 and 400 metre hurdles respectively.


The Olympic steeplechase combines the art of middle-distance running, with the obstacle leaping element from hurdles. The men’s 3,000 metre steeplechase has been an event at the Olympics since 1920, with the women’s steeplechase getting introduced in 2008. Kenya are the undisputed kings of men’s steeplechase winning eight in a row (starting with Julius Korir’s victory at Los Angeles 1984, moving on through to Ezekiel Kemboi’s win at London 2012).

Triathlons/Decathlons/Modern Pentathlon/Heptathlon

The Olympic Triathlon consists of a 1,500 swimming section, a 40km cycling section, and a 10km run. The Decathlon is made up of 10 events – including 100 metres, 400 metres, 110 metre hurdles, and 1,500 metres. The Modern Pentathlon is made up of five events, and includes a 3,200 metre cross country run.

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