All about starting blocks

How long have runners been using starting blocks in races?

When you have kids, you get the most unusual questions. My eight-year-old son asked me why runners start from a crouch, so I said it was to get their center of gravity out in front of their feet during acceleration, so their feet did not run out from under them. Then he asked why their feet don’t slip, so I mentioned the starting blocks. And he asked when did they start using them, which I don’t know but it seemed like an interesting question.

Did the advent of starting blocks cause an artificial jump in distance records? Was there any controversy involved–ruining the sport and all that? I never noticed, but they must pull them up after the race starts, before the second lap, don’t they? How are they attached to the track?

I beleive there are just two pins holding them into the ground.

You may have found the only subject in the world for which there is not an entry on Wikipedia. Congratulations.

For any race more than a lap, the runners work their way to the inside two or three lanes, so they only have to remove some of the blocks to make way for them. (There may be an exception to that.)

In Chariots of Fire, about two runners competing at the 1924 Olympics, there’s a scene showing one of them digging holes in the track (compressed sand or cinders, something like that) to act as his starting blocks. I gather that was the practice at the time.

Prior to the last summer Olympics there was a show on TV about the earliest games and it made reference to the runners having the equivalent of starting blocks (I can’t recall the specifics but it showed re-enactors running on the same field and bracing against something that was affixed to the ground).

From here:

In the modern Olympics, sprinters start from a crouching position, pushing against starting blocks to help them accelerate. Blocks were introduced in the late 1920s and were first used at the 1948 Olympic games in London. Instrumented starting blocks appeared in the early 1980s, and consisted of a spring plate and a microswitch. In the late 1980s units based on strain gauges emerged, although they were very sensitive to the push of the athlete against them and caused many wrong false starts in competitive races. An improved strain-gauge version that worked quite well was introduced in about 1993, and two years later an “intelligent” version was developed. It has a small module with a microcontroller built into the starting block and uses complex algorithms to eliminate false triggers. Starts are considered false if the athlete starts within 0.1 s of the firing of the starting gun - although the guilty athletes are no longer flogged!

Due to warfare in most locations there were no Olympics in 1940 and 1944. Comparing winning mens’ sprint times in 1936 against those in 1948, we have:

100 metres - 1936 - Jesse Owens (10.3 sec)
100 metres - 1948 - Harrison Dillard (10.3 sec)

200 metres - 1936 - Jesse Owens ( 20.7 sec)
200 metres - 1948 - Melvin Patton ( 21.1 sec)

400 metres - 1936 - Archie Williams ( 46.66 sec)
400 metres - 1948 - Arthur Wint (46.2 sec)

Inconclusive really.

Oh, I wouldn’t say inconclusive. It proves Jesse Owens was a damn fine sprinter. :slight_smile:

Well, on outdoor tracks at least, the shortest multi-lap race would be the 800m. In these races, the runners don’t use blocks at all.

The only race I can see where removing blocks might be an issue is the 400m.

And at the finish, they can just run straight ahead, so the blocks that are far enough around the turn (because of the stagger) can be left in place.

But I was right, there is at least one exception. The 4 x 400 relay. According to one cite I found, the runners stay in their lanes for the first 500 meters (a little over one lap, which takes them through three turns) before they’re allowed to break for the inside. So, better get those starting blocks out of the way before they come around.

Ancient Greece:
although more along the line of toe holds rather than raised blocks.


Below is a comparison of the two sprints with Owens taken out of the equation and the silver medalist’s times included for 1936:

100 metres - 1936 - Ralph Metcalfe (10.4 sec)
100 metres - 1948 - Harrison Dillard (10.3 sec)

200 metres - 1936 - Mack Robinson (21.1 sec)
200 metres - 1948 - Melvin Patton ( 21.1 sec)

Still inconclusive really. :slight_smile:

Here’s some articles about controversy over the use of starting blocks. It says that they were introduced to the west coast in 1929, after being approved on the east coast.

This is true for indoor tracks and possibly for Olympic-level outdoor tracks. For high-school level outdoor track, we just used blocks with little teeth on the bottom that would grip the track surface. If it was an old track with a bad surface that wouldn’t grip well, we’d just ask someone to stand on the back of the block for us.