Why are races run in anticlockwise direction in athletic tournaments?

It is hard to have everyone agree on something. But when we talk about the Olympics’ race events, everyone can agree that it should be run in an anti-clockwise direction. Don’t you wonder why all races are run in that direction? Certainly, answering “because the rules say so” is not enough.

Every sport has its own set of rules with a long history of why it was made. Races also have their fair share of ancient stories. It is just that running anti-clockwise was not the norm. During the 1896, 1900, and 1904 Olympics, athletes ran in a clockwise manner. It is believed that the founder, Pierre de Coubertin, adopted the standards from England’s tracks at the time.

Runners from Oxford and Cambridge also went clockwise until the late 1940s. However, the Olympic committee has to set a unified standard because some athletes complained of being disadvantaged for training the opposite direction back home.

An international rule was established. However, no one knew why track events preferred going anti-clockwise instead of clockwise. There is no definitive answer, though, only lots of exciting theories. Here are some of them:

Theory # 1: The Roman Tradition

From a historical perspective, legend says that the chariot races in Rome’s Circus Maximus were traditionally clockwise. This was before an unlucky chariot racer accidentally hit emperor Nero. The charioteer was executed, and all the subsequent races in Rome were run on the opposite track. The ruler and his kingsman liked it because they watched the Circus from the Palatine hill, where the finishing line was on the eastern side. Running in this direction became a roman tradition over time.

Theory # 2: Right Side Dominance

About 90% of the world’s population have the right-side dominance. The majority who write with their right hand are right-sided overall. That is, people prefer to walk with their right foot first, answer calls in their right ear, and peep into a hole using their right eye. This dominance causes a natural preference for people to curve to their left rather than going against it.

While running around a track, you will have to take a longer stride from the leg on the oval’s outer part. People would prefer the stronger, dominant leg to do this. Additionally, most written languages are read from left to right, making the race easy to follow for the spectators.

Theory # 3: The Natural Reason

Athletes run anti-clockwise during races because everything in nature also moves in that direction. This includes molecules of amino acids, the shape of seashells, movement of planets (except Venus) around the sun, and earth rotation that causes day and night.

Experts say that as the Earth also rotates in anti-clockwise, an athlete running in the same direction will have a slight advantage and a faster time. The Earth’s spin, the wind direction, and the centripetal acceleration have worked together. However, when we run towards the opposite direction, we would have to spend extra energy overcoming the Earth’s movement.

Eight women getting ready to run in a race track

Theory # 4: The Ancient Olympic Games

This tradition is traced back to 700 BC. The ancient Hippodrome has tournaments that run in anti-clockwise directions. Hippodrome of Constantinople is a sporting and social center in ancient Greece and Rome for horse and chariot racing. It is said to accommodate about 40,000-50,000 people.

Contemporary literature and illustrations, including Olympia, Altis, and Museum and Zurich Art Editions hailing from that era, prove this. Scholars also discovered information about horses that have stronger right hind legs. This, they say, helps horses cover great distances in a short amount of time. With this, ancient infantry and cavalry commanders execute encircling tactics in an anti-clockwise direction, if possible.

Theory # 5: The Position of the Heart

Our heart’s superior vena-cava collects deoxygenated blood to the heart from left to right. Deoxygenated blood carries large amounts of carbon dioxide. Oxygenated blood brings oxygen-rich blood cells to other parts of the body. If blood oxygen levels are too low, it may cause headaches or shortness of breath. Running in an anti-clockwise direction helps speed up the movement of the blood, removing deoxygenated blood faster.

This could also be why merry-go-arounds, roller coasters, and other carnival rides are operating anti-clockwise. Extreme rides leave most people out of breath and, worse, become unconscious.