Running was the oldest and most important Olympic sport. From 776 BC to 728 BC, the stadion, a sprint event of about 180 m, was even the only event. Up to the Roman periode, the victor of the stadion race gave his name to the olympiad in which he won.
Gradually other running events were added. At the Olympic games, following events were introduced besides the stadion: the diaulos, this is twice the distance of the stadion, the race in armour and the dolichos, a long-distance race. In the Isthmian, Nemean and Panathenaic games, there was also the hippios, a distance of four stadia. The torch-race and the marathon were not Olympic sports.
Greek athletes, like modern athletes, increasingly specialized in a single sport. Sprinters were often capable of winning both the stadion and the diaulos, but victories in more diverging events were rare. Philostratus describes the ideal physical characteristics for short and long-distance runners.
The athletes ran the running events naked and barefoot on the running track, which was called 'stadion' as well. The surface consisted of sand. Start and finish were originally two simple straight lines scratched in the sand. From the fifth century BC onwards, permanent lines were constructed with stone slabs. At the start, the athletes could place their feet in two parallel grooves in the slab. In some stadia, for example in Delos and at the Isthmos, a complicated starting mechanism held back the athletes with a small bar, which fell at the starting signal.
When the distance was longer than the stadion, the athletes had to turn on the running track around the turning-point, a pole at the end of the track. Taking this sharp turn of 180 degrees was difficult. When several athletes arrived together at the turning-point, falls and cheating, for example turning before the pole, could not always be avoided.