To the outsider, track and field can seem a confusing mishmash of competitions. I’ll try to get it straight for you.
Almost everywhere outside of the USA, athletics is the umbrella term used for the sports of track and field, cross country, road running and racewalking.
The international governing body is the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), comprised of over 200 national governing bodies. The governing body in our country is USA Track and Field (USATF), and is Athletics Canada (AthCan) for our northern neighbors. The IAAF’s NGBs are subdivided into six continental organizations.
Everyone has heard of the Olympic Games, held every four years. Athletes compete for national teams, generally with a limit of two or three entries per nation per event. Athletes usually must attain a qualifying mark in their event in order to enter; the United States is generally the only nation able to fill its allotment in nearly every event.
There are many other similar competitions, held in a similar format but on a smaller scale.
National team scores are not kept at the Olympics or Worlds (although people do pay attention to medals standings), but national team scores are kept and team medals awarded at the World Cross Country and World Half Marathon championships. In addition, a quadrennial Continental Cup is held, in which scores are kept between teams representing the six continents.
There are all kinds of regional competitions, such as those held within a continent (such as the European Championships or African Championships), a region (such as the Pan-American Games), an intergovernmental organization (such as the Commonwealth Games), or other international organization (such as the Military World Games or Universiade).
Differing from the championships above, invitational competitions are between individuals competing not for national teams but for themselves. Mostly these meets are organized into various tours, much like golf, tennis, or auto racing.
Track and field
The IAAF Diamond League is comprised of the world’s fourteen most prestigious invitationals. To facilitate television and other concerns, only about half of the standard Olympic track and field events are staged in any one meet. Points standings are kept (among individuals) and prize money is awarded to season-long champions in each event.
The IAAF World Challenge is comprised of the next tier of invitationals, usually about fourteen meets. No points standings are kept in this series.
The IAAF Hammer Challenge is a season-long hammer throw competition, being held mostly in World Challenge meets, with prize money awarded to seasonal champions.
The IAAF Combined Events Challenge is a series of decathlon and heptathlon competitions, with prize money awarded to seasonal champions.
The world’s five most prestigious marathons have organized into the World Marathon Majors, which keeps points standings and awards a jackpot to men’s and women’s series champions.
The IAAF also confers Gold, Silver and Bronze Label status to the top road races around the world. No points standings are kept.
The IAAF organizes the World Race Walking Challenge, keeping points standings and awarding prize money to seasonal champions.
The IAAF confers Permit status to the world’s most prestigious indoor track meets and cross country meets, but does not keep any kind of points standings.
National and Regional Tours
Many national governing bodies organize lower-level tours within their own country, often (but not always) associated with its national championships.
Since most of the world’s invitational track meets are held in Europe, the European Athletics Association has several levels of classification for meets not in the Diamond League or World Challenge. Those are Premium, Classic and Area Permit classifications for outdoor meets, and Permit status for the top European indoor, cross country and race walking competitions.
College Track and Cross Country
Qualifying to the NCAA’s national championships for outdoor track is via a pair of regionally-based “Preliminary Round” competitions, generally referred to as “regionals”.
Qualifying to the indoor national championships is based on athletes’ single best mark achieved during the season.
Qualifying to the cross country national championships is via nine regional championship meets plus national at-large selections.
The United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association (USTFCCCA) is open to any coach, but the vast majority of the membership are college coaches. The organization has no official power but lobbies the NCAA on the coaches’ behalf. It also promotes college track and cross country, through its annual Bowerman Awards and the amazing web work of Tom Lewis. It also produces team polls and rankings for college track and cross country.