Track and field is one of the oldest and most well-known sport events in the Olympic Games. Since the incarnation of the original Olympic Games of ancient Greece, for nearly eleven centuries dating back as far as 776 B.C., the sprinting events have been widely popular among athletes and viewers. Just as technology improves so do the tools that the athletes use and compete on. From the track conditions, to starting lanes, to one of the most important tools for sprinters, the starting blocks.
Starting blocks may be a tool that many sprinters take for granted, or even dread practicing on. Starting blocks help competitive sprinters to accelerate quickly by giving them an extra push-off the ground at the start of the race.
In the ancient running event known as the stadion where was a “starting block” type of feature. As it was used in the ancient Olympic Games not considered the Modern Games, or any modern running track meet. Hence why it is not truly considered the first starting block. Although, it may be the roots of the namesake. Furthermore, the stadian was a 200-yard, or 180 meter race. This is why a starting block feature was used.
However, all the way up to 1937, they were rejected as an unfair use of technology. It has been estimated that nearly one tenth or more of a second is saved by using starting blocks.
In the years before starting blocks were widely used and officially deemed legal, sprinters had to dig their own sort of “launching pad” into the ground at the starting line. This was in part to do with the track being clay, dirt, or cinder.
The video below is from the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, it shows how the launching pads we made and prepared before the race was begun.
This can also be seen below as Jesse Owens had to dig his own launching pads before races as well as to practice. This video also below is from 1936 at the Berlin Olympics for the 100m, you can clearly note the launching pads in action of the sprinters dug into the ground around 30 seconds and 2 minutes and 34 seconds into the video just before the race starts.
Now, as time progressed, during the 1920’s, even though the use of starting blocks was not yet made legal, the number of sprinters using starting blocks began to rise.
One of earliest and widely considered the first official patent for the starting blocks came from George Bresnahan on April 29th, 1927. Its claim was to help the sprinter’s “get away” movement whether it be on cinder or clay and of “what might be termed a starting block.”
By Feb 9th 1938, Bresnahan improved upon is early concepts. According to Bresnahan’s Patent, US 2144962, it makes the claim is that “this invention relates to new and useful improvements in starting blocks used in connection with athletic running tracks.” At this point, this is one of most high-tech starting blocks out there. However, this was still meaningless at the time as anyone setting a record using them had the record excluded.
Charley Paddock was considered as one of first Olympic sprinters to use a starting block. There are also some notion that the starting block was actually invented by Charley Paddock in 1920. However, the credit was given to Charlie Booth in 1929, which was two years after Bresnahan’s US Patent.
Finally, by 1937 the IAAF accepted the use of the starting blocks. This was a key factor into use for the next Olympics in London in 1948. The IAAF clarified that starting blocks could be used for any races up to and 400 meter dash. Sprinters in the first leg of the 4×2 and 4×4 could also use starting blocks. At first, the use of the now legal starting blocks was somewhat controversial as the claim was that they gave an unfair advantage so some of the sprinters.
The video below is from the 100 meter dash at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Nine seconds into the video as the first heat goes off at the sound of the gun goes off you can notice that only a few of the sprinters had these new starting blocks. At about a minute ten into the video you can see that all but one or two of the sprinters had starting blocks. By the end of the video for the finals, every sprinter has starting blocks. If you look closely you can see the different variety of starting blocks being used.
So what kind of starting blocks did they use in the 1946 London Games? At this point wooden starting blocks where rarely used as aluminum was the new tool of the trait. This new advancement in starting blocks allowed for a more secure platform for an explosive start. The newly adjustable, aluminium starting blocks developed by Mr. H. Rottenburg.
Flash forward to today’s modern technology. Starting blocks now come in all sizes and specific uses and variants. High and Short Starting Blocks are two of the main types used today.
The early 1960’s and 1970’s starting blocks had a low block where the heel is exposed, this was aimed to generate more force as the calf muscle provided greater force production. These starting blocks are normally much shorter in length and have wider foot pads. This allows for more efficient acceleration as the hip space permits greater spacing for the feet.
Valeri Borzov in the photo below was famous for his use of this type.
As the late 80’s and early 90’s too off, the use of high blocks starting appearing more often. It was the new fad in the starting block evolution. This was made notice during the years of Ben Johnson (regardless of the doping scandal) between 1986 and 1988. Ben Johnson seemed to simply leap out of the blocks with both feet at the same time. This video below is a view of Johnson taking off.
In 2008 the high block starting blocks become much slimmer and longer. This allow the sprinter to adjust their pads to his or her preference. This new edition adds to force and take off power of the sprinter. The design also creates a more dynamic stance. This was key noted at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
As the high blocks fad faded away until 2007 and 2008, short blocks reappeared. This most noticeable at the 1996 Olympics with the Michael Johnson’s golden spikes. The video below is Michael Johnson’s 400m final at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
From every age and every style starting blocks are a key tool for sprinters. Starting blocks allow for greater efficiency when racing. Today’s starting blocks are adjustable to specific angles and lengths depending on the brand and the sprinters preference. As each Olympic Games come around, the science and technology behind starting blocks are getting more sophisticated.