Athletic contests in running, walking, jumping and throwing are among the oldest of all sports and their roots are prehistoric. Athletics events were depicted in the Ancient Egyptian tombs in Saqqara, with illustrations of running at the Heb Sed festival and high jumping appearing in tombs from as early as 2250 BC. The Tailteann Games were an ancient Celtic festival in Ireland, founded circa 1800 BC included running and stone-throwing among its sporting events. The original and only event at the first Olympics in 776 BC was a stadium-length running event known as the stadion. This later expanded to include throwing and jumping events within the ancient pentathlon. Athletics competitions also took place at Panhellenic Games, which were founded later around 500 BC.
The Cotswold Olimpick Games, a sports festival which emerged in 17th century England, featured athletics in the form of sledgehammer throwing contests. Athletics competitions were held about 1812 at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and in 1840 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire at the Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt. The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich held an organised competition in 1849, and a regular series of closed meetings open only to undergraduates, was held by Exeter College, Oxford from 1850. The annual Wenlock Olympian Games, first held in 1850 in Wenlock, England, incorporated athletics events into its sports programme.
The first modern-style indoor athletics meetings were recorded shortly after in the 1860s, including a meet at Ashburnham Hall in London which featured four running events and a triple jump competition. The Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) was established in England in 1880 as the first national body for the sport of athletics and began holding its own annual athletics competition, the AAA Championships. The United States also began holding an annual national competition, the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships – first held in 1876 by the New York Athletic Club. Athletics became codified and standardized via the English AAA and other general sports organisations in the late 19th century.
An athletics competition was included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and it has been one of the foremost competitions at the quadrennial multi-sport event ever since. Originally for men only, the 1928 Olympics saw the introduction of women's events in the athletics programme. Athletics has been part of the Paralympic Games since the inaugural Games in 1960. An international governing body, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), established separate outdoor World Championships in 1983.