Rewards of the races: running and European athletes

Whether short or long distance, running has multiple incentives and rewards

José Manuel Rodríguez Hurtado (opens in new window) (Hispana)

Since prehistoric times, humans have been running. In those days, while hunting animals, the main reward was catching the hunted prey.

Nowadays, however, when the main motivation is no longer subsistence, people have continued to race, with athletics coming to be considered the oldest organised sport in the world.

Running has multiple incentives and rewards, both physical and psychological. On the psychological side, we can find incentives such as beating a new personal best, enjoying a beautiful landscape, breathing fresh air in nature, winning a competition or simply finishing a race. As for the physical aspect, there are lots of health goals that can go from losing weight to lowering blood sugar levels.

Regardless of what each person's main incentive is, running will reward you with a sense of well-being and better sleep after reviving the body.

Long distance: two outstanding European athletes

Long distance running race types are 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon. The middle distance races recognised by the World Athletics are 800 metres and 1,500 metres.

In the first editions of the modern Olympics, Paavo Nurmi (1897- 1973) - known as the ‘Flying Finn’ - stood out. Nurmi was a specialist in medium and long distance runs. His childhood was spent in a small cabin in the woods, where he was forced to follow a diet based on vegetables and dried fish, which, together with the cold Finnish winters, was key to developing his great resistance.

black and white photograph of Paavo Nurmi running

Although he won many Olympic races, his prominent triumphs were in Antwerp 1920 (10,000 m), Paris 1924 (5,000m) and Amsterdam 1928 (10,000 m). Nurmi introduced the regular stride technique, setting the pace on the stopwatch and distributing his energy evenly throughout the races.

Another prominent athlete, Emil Zátopek, was nicknamed the ‘Czech Locomotive’. With 5 Olympic golds and 18 world records, he was a world star in the early 1950s. In the 10,000 metres, over the course of six years, he dominated and revolutionised his sport. His three golds in long distance running at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (including his victorious marathon debut) is a feat that will unlikely be repeated in history.

black and white photograph of Emil Zátopek crossing the line at the end of a race

In contrast to the privileged athletes who had previously dominated the Olympic competition, Zatopek grew up in poverty. His training system, developed by himself, consisted of a large volume of interval training. Although he was derided at first, his success transformed the training methods of long-distance athletes.

Speed competitions: the other side of racing

In athletics, the opposite of endurance races are speed sprints: 100, 200 and 400 metres, as well as hurdle races: 110 and 400 metres. The emotion generated in a few seconds attracts many fans to races.

colour photograph of male athletes beginning a sprint race

In Europe, there have been great athletes who dominated these speed tests. Two stand out especially: the Italian Pietro Mennea, famous for his legendary world record of 200 metres which stood for 17 years, and the Ukrainian Valery Borzov, who dominated speed races during the early 1970s. Both were Olympic champions.

black and white photograph of hurdlers jumping in a race

Outstanding female athletes

Since antiquity, women in sports events have been discriminated against and marginalised. At the ancient Olympics, women were prohibited from taking part - although there was a female-only version of the Olympic games called the Hereos Games (in honour of the goddess Hera).

It was not until 1928, at the Olympics held in Amsterdam, that women first took part in athletics competitions, with very few participants compared to men. Equality with men has not truly come to the Olympics yet - in the 2012 London Olympics, women were 45% of the participants.

European female athletes have stood out brilliantly on the world athletics scene, including the German sprinter Marita Koch, the Russian middle distance runner Svetlana Masterkova and the Portuguese marathon runner Rosa Mota, to name just a few.

colour photograph of a woman running in a race, she wears a peach and purple leotard

Cross country (also called simply cross) is a form of athletics that consists of traveling distances in non-urban natural circuits, mountains, forests, etc.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was within the Olympic program. It has become a very popular race, particularly at amateur levels.

colour photograph of several people running
colour photograph of a number of athletes running a race

Also, in recent times there has been a boom in popular, public races. In the 1970s, big cities began to organise large popular marathons where anybody could take part. Berlin’s marathon is one of the most prestigious. Its first edition was held in 1973 and, on average, around 40,000 runners take part.

Other well-known popular races are San Silvestres, which are run on December 31 in various parts of the world. It is worth noting that popular races are frequently used to promote solidarity or some commercial objectives.

colour photograph, group of people running in a race in a city street

Popular race in Madrid, 1989, Archivo de la Ciudad de Arganda del Rey, CC BY ND

Triathlon and Ironman: effort taken to the limit

The triathlon consists of three disciplines in a row in the same event: swimming, cycling and running. Specific distances and features may vary by tournament. The Ironman is a long distance triathlon that ends with a marathon race. It is a very hard test - just finishing it is already quite a challenge.

Within the Ironman, we highlight an exceptional case outside the professional elite of athletics.

Ramón Arroyo is a Spanish citizen who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004 at the age of 32. After a few depressing years, he decided to cope with the disease through physical exercise, and managed to finish an Ironman in Barcelona in 2013. He has written an autobiography titled 'Surrendering is not an option' and, in 2016, his life was brought to the big screen with the movie '100 meters'.

colour poster for a triathlon with illustrations of athletes swimming, cycling and running and text about the event

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This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.