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Actually, it is as old as mankind itself, because man has run off and jumped immediately, and he has certainly found something to throw quickly. The first opponents? Animals, to run after them on the hunt until they fell from exhaustion, or to run away from them. Later, the spear was added to the hunt and made it into the Olympic program.
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The goals of the first competitions were significant to sacred: In Egypt, the noble offspring is said to have agreed on the succession to the throne among themselves in the race. Some sporting comparisons also took place in honour of the deceased or of gods. The home of the great athletics competitions, however, is Greece. The Greeks also linguistically justified athletics with their words Athlon for competition and Athletes for competitors. And it was a Greek who was one of the first to describe a race in literary terms, Homer in the “Iliad”. Odysseus wins confidently, he had begged the goddess Athena for help. “She easily created his limbs, his feet and his arms from above”, it says, and not only that: She lets his pursuer Aias slip on a cow patty.
The first Olympic Games were organized by the Greeks in the eighth century B.C., but not as funny games. “Sport in antiquity is a by-product of military training, the Greek athlete has always been a warrior,” says Manfred Lämmer, professor of sports history at the German Sports University in Cologne. The Olympic program still looked clear: Athletics, martial arts, horse races and chariot races. Athletics was divided into three runs. The first was the stadium race. “It was 600 feet, but because the foot was measured locally differently, the run was between 168 and 210 meters long,” says Lämmer. A second run was about 400 meters long, cross-country skiing about 3800 meters. Also a pentathlon was offered, the pentathlon, the overall winner was determined from long jump, discus and javelin throw, running and wrestling.
When the athletes concentrated more and more on the competitions, i.e. became professionals, the playwright Euripides blasphemed their addiction to victory and fame. The motivation was money and honour, but nothing. “The shame began with second place,” says Lämmer. As European vice-champion you would have been laughed at.
How did the disciplines develop?
Athletics has a split personality. Over time, it has taken on more and more disciplines, 47 of which are now part of the World Championships and Olympic Games programme, the most recent of which, the 3000-metre women’s obstacle course, only became Olympic in Beijing in 2008.
Athletics has taken its inspiration from two sources, the Olympic Games of antiquity and the sports movement in Great Britain in the 19th century. Shot put and hammer throw, for example, come from the Scottish Highland Games. Hurdles took place for the first time in the middle of the 19th century in Oxford. The idea behind it: What horses can do, people can too.
At the first Olympic Games of modern times, in 1896 in Athens, athletics started with twelve disciplines – and only with men. Women have only been allowed to participate in athletics since the games in Amsterdam in 1928. In general, athletics has long been considered too strenuous for women. Run 42,195 kilometres in the marathon? Too long for women. Until the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the women were not allowed to run more than 1500 meters, but only since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles have they started in an Olympic marathon.
Women now have equal rights – almost. They do not walk 50 kilometres, the sprint over the hurdles is 100 instead of 110 metres, and instead of a decathlon the women do a seventh fight. In addition, their throwing equipment is lighter.
What makes them so attractive?
Athletics is a nice thing to watch, for example when discus throwers throw the disc out of the ring with all their might and let it sail across the meadow. Or high jumpers fly with filigree technique over the bar, higher than a door frame, and seem to defeat gravity in the process. It is exciting, sometimes it crackles even before the starting signal as in the 100-meter race or the tension builds up slowly on a longer course, only to unload in a brilliant final sprint.
When it comes to evaluating performance, athletics suddenly becomes very objective, measuring and comparing everything and putting every result on long lists.
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One of the greatest athletes in history, the Czech Emil Zatopek, asked why he walked: “Fish swims, bird flies, man walks”. Because it is so simple, athletics can be practiced anywhere in the world. Athletes from 210 countries are therefore expected at the World Championships in Berlin, and at the last World Championships in Osaka in 2007 the title holders came from all five continents.
The globalisation of athletics is due to the low financial and technical costs and the wide variety of requirements involved. Depending on the discipline, it demands more strength, speed, endurance or technique. Small, petite athletes move through the stadium just as much as heavyweight musclemen.
What development has it undergone in recent years?
She has introduced World Championships, not long ago, in 1983 in Helsinki, the first took place, first every four years, since 1993 all two. It has to compete with other sports for television coverage and sponsors’ money. However, it has suffered setbacks. In Germany it had to leave many of its venues to football. When new stadiums are built or rebuilt, it is usually without a running track. In Germany, there are only three stadiums left in which an international championship could be held: the Olympic stadiums in Berlin and Munich and the stadium in Nuremberg.
But it has also set itself back – through doping. Some of the most spectacular doping cases come from athletics, the case of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in 1988 in Seoul or the case of the Balco Laboratory 2003, in which a steroid was modified specifically for the sport so that athletes do not attract attention during doping tests. World records were to be bred in this way.
Some athletes have even paid for doping with their lives, the heptathlete Birgit Dressel or the American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner. Since so much doping has been discovered, an evil shadow has been following athletics. Almost every top performance is doubted. Despite countless negative test results, there is no certainty that the sprint world record holder Usain Bolt was not also doped.
And then a part of athletics has become independent, it runs alongside, so to speak. It is the running movement. It not only focuses on top performance, but also on well-being and sociability. So a contradiction arose: There are more and more street runs, every big city that is worth its salt organizes a marathon – but the average runner is getting slower and slower. Millions jog in Germany. It probably wouldn’t occur to them to call themselves track and field athletes.
What challenges does it face today?
Athletics has held up well for a long time. Being an Olympic core sport seemed to be enough for it as a life insurance policy. In the meantime, however, it seems bloated, heavy and immobile. “The disciplines of athletics are the sports of the 19th century. They are conserved, although they no longer reflect the lifestyle of our time,” says Manfred Lämmer. The new sports convey a different feeling, which counts fun, the experience. Training, constantly improving one’s own performance is no longer so important.
The Briton Sebastian Coe, two-time Olympic champion in the 1500-meter run and organizer of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, explains: “I can’t say to my sons: Let’s go to the park and pole vault. Athletics lack the playful and group dynamic of other sports. In school sports, formerly the breeding station of athletics, it now has to fight for attention. And at the top, at the big competitions in the stadium, she is looking for spectators.
So she has to make herself pretty, possibly lose weight, part with disciplines. But traditionalists argue with modernizers about the right way; whether athletics would still be athletics if shot put or hammer throw were excluded.
Now athletics is coming to Berlin, with everything it has, it wants to show its best side – perhaps it will succeed as a beauty of age.