The most famous athletics competitions are the Track and Field events, usually held in a track and field stadium and involving running events such as sprints, middle-distance or long distance running; jumping events such as pole vault, long, high or triple jump and throwing events such as shot put, discus, javelin or hammer throwing. The athletics' main governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), recognises four other types of athletics events, not held in a track and field venue: cross country, road running, mountain running or race walking.

Athletics contests consisting of running, jumping, throwing and walking have pre-historic roots with illustrations of such activities being found in Ancient Egyptian tombs as early as 2250 BC. Organized large-scale athletics competitions can be traced back to the Ancient Olympic Games from 776 BC, the Panhellenic Games founded around 500 BC, the Cotswold Olimpick Games during 17th century England or the annual Olympiade de la République (Olympics of the Republic) held in revolutionary France between 1796 and 1798.

In the modern era, athletics competitions can be divided into annual meetings, national championships and international championships. Annual meetings are usually the most common and basic level of professional athletics competitions. The national championships are usually organized by a national governing body and are held to decide each country's best athlete in each event. International championships are usually contested between athletes representing their country. The most prestigious and famous modern era competition is the international summer Olympic Games, first held in 1896. The Summer Olympics are the first global athletics competition. Nations compete by tallying together all the points and medals stemming from their athletes' individual performances. In 1928, the Olympics saw the introduction of women's events in their athletics program and 1960 saw the inauguration of a competition for athletes with disabilities, the Paralympic games.