On Monday, track and field’s international governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), approved the entry standards for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The list specifies the minimum times, distances, and (for the pole vault and high jump) heights that athletes need to achieve to be eligible to participate at the upcoming XXXI Olympiad.
There are a few reasons why you should care about this. For one, athletics is the original Olympic discipline, dating back to the very first iteration of the Games. “The first event contested in the ancient Olympic Games was the ‘stadium’ race, a sprint of about 192 meters,” the Olympics’ official website explains. “Winners in this event have been recorded from as far back as 776 BC.” Since the modern era began in 1896, the most popular events we have today–like the long jump, 100 meters, 1500 meters, or the marathon–have been contested at every single Olympics, as one can see from this chart.
It’s not hard to figure out why athletics, along with wrestling, is the oldest and most enduring of Olympic sports. This is physical competition stripped down to its most basic form: who’s the quickest runner; who can throw an object the furthest; who can jump the highest. There is an appealing simplicity to track and field because all of us have some experience doing this kind of thing (racing your brother when you were five years old counts).
For that reason, the Olympic qualifying standards for track and field are fun because they make it easy to see how you measure up: here are the distances and the times you need to run them in to count yourself among the world’s best. Most other Olympic sports, with obvious exceptions like swimming and weightlifting, don’t give us such a conveniently quantifiable measure to appreciate athletic brilliance.
To set these standards, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) “analyses the top 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, up to 100 marks in every event, every year,” says Larry Eder, a publisher and former president of Running Network LLC, a large worldwide network of running websites and magazines. “It’s a pretty systematic and conscious approach.” (An IAAF representative told Outside that that a document explaining in detail the approach to Rio’s entry standards would be published on the IAAF website in the near future.)
Interestingly, the overall IAAF Olympic entry standards for London 2012 were slightly tougher than the ones revealed for Rio. Out of 43 men’s and women’s events, standards were slightly harder to meet in 2012 for 30 events, tied in 5, and lower in 8.
This does not necessarily mean the overall standard in track in field has dropped, however.
In previous years, national Olympic committees were allowed to send up to three athletes who met an “A” standard, or one athlete who met a slower “B” standard, per event. For the 2016 Olympics, the IAAF has done away with this system in an attempt to streamline the logistical headache of having two separate requirements. Since the “B” standard is no longer, it seems logical that the single standard will be slightly lower than previous “A” standards. Unless the IAAF comes out with another announcement in the next few days, the maximum number of qualified entrants a country may send to the Olympics is still three per event.
“The International Olympic Committee is putting pressure on all the sports to keep the number of athletes down because they are trying to simplify the largest sporting event in the world.” Eder says.
So what does it really take to be among the select few? We broke down a few of the most popular events:
The Men’s 5000 Meters (3.1 miles)
The men’s standard is 13:25, which translates to 4:19 for per mile. (And, remember, that’s just to qualify.) Assuming that most people can’t run a 4:19 mile, it may be helpful to break the number down a little further.
The 5000 meters is 12.5 laps around your standard 400-meter track. To run a 13:25, you need to average 64-second laps. So, the next time you’re looking for a fun, humbling workout, try to see how many laps you can run holding a 64-second pace. If you are able to keep it up for two laps, you are 16 percent of the way there to being ready for Brazil.
The Women’s 1500 Meters (.932 miles)
Ladies, the standard for the 1500 meters is 4:06. That translates to a 4:24 mile, or a 66 second lap around the track. If you can run one lap at this pace, you are a whopping 25 percent of an Olympian.
The Men’s 10000 Meters (6.2 miles)
28 minutes even. A 4:30 mile and a 67 second lap.
And for you speed freaks:
The Men’s 100 Meters (0.062 miles)
10.16 seconds is the standard to qualify. Which translates to roughly 22.02 mph. Yes, that’s fast. Lucky for you, Usain Bolt is notoriously slow out of the blocks. If you’ve got amazing response time, you might be able to stay with him for almost a whole second.
The Women’s 100 Meters
11.32 seconds. 19.76 mph. Yikes.
Needless to say, determining how close you are to becoming an Olympian is a fun (and also slightly depressing) way to spend an afternoon, and you can do it for any distance from the 100 meters to the marathon.
Speaking of, the marathon world record, set by Dennis Kimetto last September in Berlin, stands at 2:02:57. That’s an average mile pace of 4:41.36 and a 400-meter lap of 70 seconds. So go to your local high school track and run a 70-second lap. Pretty easy, right?
Now try doing it 105.5 times.