There are numerous types of athletics events, ranging from school sports day on a makeshift track on the playing fields, through local club levels with at least a proper track and jumping pits, right up to international level with the full stadium experience and comfy seating. The type of event you are watching is obviously going to affect the way you spectate, so here are a few event-specific tips.
Obviously you want to support your kid, or a relative's or friend's kid, and will do this raucously.
Cheer as loudly as you can for the object of your support.
Be ready to console. Not every child is the next Carl Lewis.
Volunteer for the parents' events. OK, so your kid may be embarrassed, but at least you are supporting the event.
Applaud politely at the award ceremonies, even if your kid won nothing.
Shout abuse at the kid beating your child. After all, their father may be the incredible hulk standing behind you.
Trip up any of the other competitors as they run past you. Exceptions can be made for the parents' events, especially if the parent of a 'win it all' is drawn beside you.
Use foul and abusive language. You don't want a detention at your age.
Hiss and call 'unfair' during the awards ceremony, no matter who has won. This may be their big moment.
If you are supporting at this level you are most likely one of the poor, unfortunate relatives, girlfriends or drivers who has ended up with someone who has shown some sign of athletic talent and has decided to pursue it further. You might consider yourself lucky, but after a few wet events around desolate venues in industrial wastelands you will soon change your mind.
This style of event is slightly more organised than school level but you'll find very limited stands, mostly only at the end of the home straight. You are, however, free to move around the area to cheer on the jumping and throwing events.
At this level, chances are that the person you are supporting is part of a team, so your support for the whole team will be greatly appreciated. Also, it is highly likely that the person you came along to support is going to do a variety of events, as there are hardly ever enough team members to cover all the events1. So find out exactly what events they will be doing and move to the appropriate area of the track area to lend your support in good time.
Normally you will find that the officials at this style of event are the coaches from the various competing teams. Be prepared, therefore, for the finishing times in track events not to follow in chronological order, as coaches are sometimes watching their own charges instead of the athlete they are meant to be timing. Normally, however, they are pretty precise and don't show bias - they are there for the love of the sport first and foremost.
You may be lucky enough to live near one of the annual Grand Prix events, or in a city that is hosting one of the major championships - the Olympic, World, Continental or Commonwealth Games. If this is the case you can spoil yourself and start off at an event where you are guaranteed to see the biggest names of the day competing. You will end up in a stadium and may not be able to get close to the events you want to see. If there is designated seating, try to book early for the part of the stadium you want to be seated in as there are many options.
There will be a published programme with a list of world, national and all-comers records, and sometimes each athlete's personal best (PB) performance. The reason for these being listed is so that the spectator has some idea of how well the athletes out there are doing. Tannoy announcements will also gladly announce if anyone has broken a record or achieved a PB, just to assure you that the athletes are giving their best.
OK, so now you have a feel for the type of event you have turned up for, what is the actual etiquette and best way to watch the events?
Sprints and Hurdles
These events are all over inside a minute and you hardly have time to draw breath from the gun going off to the finish. Everyone wants to sit at the finish to see the outcome but this is, of course, impossible.
Other locations good for watching:
Start of home straight - the stagger of the 200m and 400m events unwinds here, plus there is the tension of the 100m and sprint hurdle2 starts.
1500m start - here you are right across the track from the finish line and usually have a good view of all the field events.
Facing down or up the home straight - you get to see the faces and technique of the athletes taking part.
Starts are most important for these events, so quietness is required from when the athletes take their marks and go to their blocks. If the spectators aren't quiet the athletes will indicate to the starter that they are not ready, so by making noise you are only delaying the action. As soon as they are on the way the whole crowd will start to roar. After all, it is for less than a minute.
Middle and Long Distance
These are the endurance events and therefore the start is not so important. No-one is able to predict where the drama is likely to take place in these events, as nobody but the athletes knows how they are going to run the race and where they are going to put in their kick for the finish. Standing at the finish line for a 10,000m race may be irrelevant if the important action came 600m out when the winner lifted his speed and got rid of their remaining challengers.
In the steeplechase, however, drama can be predicted to happen at two regular locations: the last barrier, located in the home straight; and at the water jump, located either on the inside or outside of the last bend. These places provide the drama because, last time around, they are taken at far greater speed than normal and therefore stride patterns may be out of synch, while the water jump is also wet and occasionally causes slippage.
If you are sitting watching a long distance race, which will usually be scheduled during early stages of field events when not a lot else is happening, do continue at least a polite applause as the racers come past you. There is nothing more demoralising than running a competitive 10,000m race (25 laps) in complete silence; it seems like a bad training night.
The field events are divided into two groups: the jumps and the throws. The jumps can be located anywhere around the track and have no set location, as all they need is space for a run-up. The throws, however, all need an arc of space and therefore take place inside the running track. While the runners generally have a set time at which they will perform, the field athletes will take the number of rounds they are allowed or, in the case of high jump and pole vault, until they knock the bar off three times in a row. So they slug it out, sometimes for hours, while the runners come and go from the track. Noise does not bother them as they get used to being less well supported than the runners, but they do appreciate it when they get the attention in a near-empty stadium.
These take two forms: length (long jump and triple jump) and height (high jump and pole vault). The common denominator in all four is that the athlete will sprint along a run-up, explode at a take off point, then sail through the air either along, or up and over a bar.
Most of the top jumpers these days like to involve the crowd around them into setting the rhythm for the start of their warm-up. They want this to stay constant at least until they start running. So they will lead the clapping from the crowd until it can sustain itself3. Then they set themselves for the run-up. At the point they start sprinting the crowd invariably speeds up at different rates but it generally explodes into a round of applause on the completion of a good jump.
These can be divided into two groups: the ones in the circle and cage (discus, hammer and shot) and the javelin, which was originally a Greek weapon of war. The cage may not be present in smaller events so stand well back. You will also glad to know that the javelin has been amended several times in recent years to make it land sooner. If these changes hadn't been made, innocent spectators would these days find themselves being speared in the stands.
Generally the throwers are isolated from the crowd, doing all their competitions in the middle of the track. The exception are the javelin throwers, who are the show-people of throwing. The reason for this is that they start their run-up on or across the track and have to wait for gaps in any race that is taking place concurrently. So, when the runners have passed, the javelin throwers will stir up the crowd to beat out their rhythm, similar to the jumpers. The crowd are more prone to join in - after all these guys are holding a sharpened metal pole, potentially a lethal weapon.
Field events are a very lonely part of athletics, but in the breaks between races they do take over the centre stage and often there are three or even four going on around the stadium at the same time. They ensure that there is always something happening or about to happen at some point in the stadium throughout the competitions. So when they are all that is going on, it is good practice to actually pay attention. They may not be household names but they put in just as much effort, if not more, as the guys who are only there for a race that lasts less than 10 seconds.
Outside the Stadium
Not all athletic events take place on a track or in a stadium. Two running disciplines take place mostly or entirely outside the confines of a stadium. These are road running and cross-country.
The most famous of the road races are marathons, but races can take place over all sorts of distances, from one mile upwards. They take place on roads that are totally or partially closed to traffic and have a different etiquette to track racing.
If you are driving your car and come across a road race that is on partially closed roads, the first rule is patience. You may want to get across the flow of runners, but do not go ploughing straight through them. There will eventually be a gap large enough for you to drive through, so wait. If you are caught behind someone trying to turn across the flow of runners, there is no need to toot your horn to make them hurry up, or attempt to squeeze past them into the line of the runners. Eventually the road will be clear for you to progress.
Remember, driving your car at speed towards any pedestrian or runner is highly dangerous.
Road Racing Crossing Code
It's not just cars that need to be careful crossing the line of runners. Spectators on foot have to be just as careful. The closing stages of road races are usually barricaded off on both sides for a very good reason: athletes can sprint at up to 25 miles (40 kilometres) per hour, even at the end of a long race. So if you are fenced in, don't cross the barrier - you will only cause someone going fast to slow down, swerve, hit you or injure themselves. Even if you are not in a barricaded area, check in the direction of the race - you might find yourself getting trampled under a fast-approaching group of runners who may not all have been able to see you step out into the road.
Cheering On the Runners
No one expects you to clap non-stop for the hours that athletes can pass your chosen viewing point, but do cheer for as many as you can. Don't just pick out favourites; they are all running hard. Using a map, you can probably identify various ways you can see your friend or relative at different points along the route; most road races being a series of loops rather than a straight line. Check on timings and look out for the athletes around them and you can walk or cycle to different parts of route to cheer for brief spurts as they are coming past. Alternatively, the route may pass your house, so mount a banner or have a party in the front garden and encourage everyone who passes, looking out for anyone known to you for an extra special cheer. Or, if you own a pub or restaurant on the route, play music or organise a band to play as the runners pass. One pub in the Isle of Dogs gets the runners in the London Marathon twice as they wind past both sides of the pub.
Most of the rules about spectator etiquette for the roads apply for cross-country also. One thing to bear in mind is that this is an outdoor winter sport, often in exposed locations, so dress appropriately. If wearing gloves, think of alternative ways to create noise, such as sirens or noise makers.
The most important thing in your role as an athletics spectator is to support the many athletes performing for you, not just the few, without impeding them or delaying them in any avoidable way. So go out there and cheer as much as you can. You may even get an Olympic Gold for effort.