Four Hundred Meters


Last month when Roger Bannister died, I, like most of the running world, got thinking about his first sub four-minute mile. I knew that he had run it in Oxford, and since I happened to have an old map of that “City of Dreaming Spires” I looked for the Iffley Road Track (now re-named the “Roger Bannister Track”) and was astonished to see its size. I overlaid that map from the 1880’s on top of a modern map and saw that the older map showed a track much larger then I had expected.


A little bit of research told me that a one-third of a mile track was built on Iffley Road in 1876. In fact it remained that size until a 19 year old enthusiast and president of the Oxford University Athletic Club got it rebuild in 1948 as a 440 yard track. And yes, it was that same enthusiast who broke the four-minute barrier six years later.


Somehow I had always imagined tracks had to be either 400 meters or 440 yards, and the idea of a third of a mile caught the attention of this mathematically inclined runner. So now I wanted to know; when did the modern 400 meter track become standard? That might be a hard date to nail down, but I could answer the simpler question; When did the Olympics converge on 400 meters?


The first modern Olympics were held in 1896 in Athens at the “Panathenaic Stadium”, the story of that track by itself would fill volumes. People have been racing there since the 6th century BC! Originally spectators lined the hillside of this narrow valley, but in 330 BC a stone stadium was built around the track. Then in 144 AD the old limestones were hauled away and replaced with marble. I guess that after 470 years it might have been time to spruce things up a bit.


The track has a 204 meter straightaway with very sharp turns with about a 7-8 meter radius, compared to a bit over 30 meter radius for modern tracks. Of course this is the perfect stadium for the running of the “Stadion” or “Stade”, the 200 meter sprint which was at the heart of the ancient Olympics, and other Greek games like the Panathenaic. But it made longer races a bit taxing. Still, the Panathenaic Stadium did host the finish of the 2004 Olympic marathon, although all other athletic events were held at a modern stadium 10k north.


Both the 1900 and 1904 Olympics were in some sense sideshows to the World’s Fair. In 1900 the Olympics moved to Paris where the Olympic Stadium hosted the cycling events in the Vélodrome de Vincennes on the east side of Paris. Track and field was relegated to the Croix-Catelan, a secondary stadium in Bois de Boulogne, a park on the west side of the city. In fact no “track” had been prepared and the races were held on “uneven grass”, in a 500 meter oval.


The track at Francis Field used for the 1904 St. Louis Olympics is still used by Washington University, although the one third of a mile track of 1904 has been replaced with a modern 400 meter track that we would all recognize.


1908 was hosted in the White City Stadium in London. Again this was a third of a mile track, although all the races were metric and distances we would recognize today. A curious feature of the White City Stadium is that outside the running track was a 660 yard concrete cycle track for bicycle races.


When I saw a photograph of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics I thought my search for the 400 meter track was over, but alas, not yet. The Stockholm track measured 380.33 meters around! I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out this distance. It works out that lane 3 is about 400 meters, but why they laid out the track that way, I don’t know. That stadium still stands today and hosts some of the Diamond League meets on its very modern 400 meter track, so there was space inside the stadium.


In 1916 the Olympics were cancelled due to The Great War (World War I).

In 1920 the Olympics took place in Antwerpen at the “Stadium of the Royal Beerschot Athletic Club”. This time the track measured in at 389.80 meters. The Royal Beerschot Athletic Club was primarily a soccer club. “Beer” is Dutch for Bear, and the clubs logo shows a bear kicking a soccer ball.


1924 saw the Olympics return to Paris, with a 500 meter track at the Stade de Colombes. This was the Olympics which is at the center of the movie “Chariots of Fire”, so you can imagine Harold Abrahams’ 100 meters as part of a long straightaway, and Eric Liddell’s 400 meters as only 4/5 of the whole circuit. Today there is a 400 meter track at Colombes. The stadium will host field hockey for the 2024 Olympics.

As a side note, Harold Abrahams not only went on to lead the Amateur Athletic Association of England, but he was the chief timer at Roger Bannister’s record breaking race.

Finally we come to 1928, Amsterdam and a 400 meter track! The official book for that Olympics lays it all out in detail:


“The running track measuring 400 metres long and 8 metres wide was laid down around the football pitch. The length was measured at a distance of 0.30 metres from the inner edge of the track, which is enclosed between walls of reinforced concrete. . .”


For the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the Coliseum readily agreed to replace their 440 yards with a 400 meter track (essentially adding 15 inches or 40cm on the inside), because it recognized that this was how things were now done. And it has remained that way ever since.

Tim Smith is a physics professor at Dartmouth College and the president of the Upper Valley Running Club. The most important number for our local tracks last week was 0, the number of inches of snow which is covering them. For further analysis, check out Smith’s website,