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Since the revival of the modern Olympics, athletics has been the most publicised sport on the Olympic programme. Today, athletics is rivalled only by football (soccer), basketball and volleyball as the most practised sport. There are basically six "categories" within track and field athletics: running, hurdling, walking, jumping, throwing and multi-events. Each of the categories include several different events, now fairly standardised throughout the world.

Track and field athletics has been held at every Olympics since 1896. Women's track and field athletics began at the 1928 Olympics and has been contested ever since. Although the men's programme has varied, it has become fairly standardised since 1932. In addition, although women were first allowed to compete in only a few events, today they have a programme of almost the same events as the men. As of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the only differences in the men's and women's programmes are that men contest a steeplechase event and women do not, the men have two walks (20km and 50km) and the women only one (20km), the distance for the women's high hurdles race is 100 metres and for the men's 110 metres, and the women compete in a heptathlon, while the men compete in the decathlon.

The United States' men have always been the top nation in the world in track and field athletics. Among the women, the Soviet Union and the GDR (East Germany) were the top powers prior to the dissolution of those two nations. These days, the United States continue to dominate in the sprints, hurdles and horizontal jumps. The African nations, notably Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco, are now the dominant forces in the distance running events. Prior to and in the early 1970s, the dominant nation in distance running was Finland.


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