Tuesday, 7 August 2012
We can't seem to escape the Olympics and so the BBC has offered us a series of lesser-spotted things at the Games so far.
There's a common misconception that the consistently anti-clockwise use of oval athletics tracks is down to the ancient Greeks. It isn't.
According to Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek History at the University of Cambridge, at Olympia and elsewhere in Greece both the running track and the hippodrome (horse-race track) were straight, using up-and-back "laps".
In early modern Olympics - Athens (1896 and 1906), Paris (1900), St Louis (1904) - athletes ran clockwise. This was changed to "left-hand inside" after that (apart from the 1908 London Olympic Marathon, which was switched so that the Royal Family could get a better view).
At the time of the 1896 Games, some but not all track races in England were run clockwise. It's thought that Baron de Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, might have formed some of his ideas on how to run the Games on ideas based on trips to England.
He visited Much Wenlock in Shropshire - acknowledged as being a birthplace of the modern Olympics - where races were originally run clockwise.
Oxford and Cambridge University were both important in athletics and both ran clockwise - Oxford until the late 1940s and Cambridge until the 1950s.In Oxford it seemed logical to run clockwise because of local geography, says Jon Roycroft, director of sport at the university.
"One of the early courses was a three lap to a mile track - it went down into a dip and it made sense to run downwards."
So how did anti-clockwise become standard?
According to Running Through the Ages by Edward Seldon Sears, in the 20th Century a number of countries began to settle on the American custom of running counter-clockwise. One theory is that early races were run on horse tracks, which ran in that direction.
Anti-clockwise running had become the norm by the early 1900s and Olympic organisers came under pressure to conform.
According to The History of Oxford's Athletics Club, in April 1948, Roger Bannister, who became president of the athletics at Oxford, said of the athletic track at Iffley Road: "I would not rest until plans were started to replace the old third mile track with a new six-lane, 440 yards track conforming to international specifications."
"It changed sometime between 1950 and 1954 and Bannister's four-minute mile was run in the anti-clockwise direction," says Roycroft.
But does running this anti-clockwise make a difference to left or right-legged athletes? Not really, says retired British sprinter John Regis.
"I am right legged - but it wasn't something that came into my mind. It was just part of the sport, you were just trained to run that way. My right leg is a bit stronger and it does a bit more work but not so that any strain is put on either leg."
There are a host of other theories about the domination of anti-clockwise running. Most people are right-handed and some surmise it is easier for them to run anti-clockwise. For most people the right leg is the strongest, with it therefore making sense that the strongest leg covers the slightly longer distance.
You will even hear people contend that the direction of the Earth's rotation makes it faster to run that way - in the northern hemisphere at least.