At the end of the 19th century, sports competitions and outdoor activities experienced an unusual boom among the population, especially in the middle and upper classes. In the United Kingdom, one of the places where this practice was most successful, the king sport was athletics. Those competitive sports in the form of endurance racing or speed became the great pastime of the time. In the absence of an international body to regulate the development of these events, the fans decided to make their own rules.
In the case of races, British athletes chose to follow their country’s traffic rules, which obliged them to drive in the left lane. They agreed that the first street would be the one on the left in the direction of the march, this being the opposite of the movement of the hands of the clock. When the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was founded in 1912, the rule that athletes run counterclockwise was maintained. At present, the regulations for the holding and control of IAAF athletics events state in article 163 that: “The direction of the race shall be made by having the kerb of the inner street to the left (…)”. In the same document, article 213.3 stipulates that “the direction of the race shall be carried out with the kerb or internal line on the left (…)”.
From the historical perspective, ancient foot and horse racing used to be done in a straight line, having to surround a post at the end of the track and return. The popular belief is that, during a horse race, writer Homer warned his son to turn left around the post to win the race. Some studies seem to indicate that in chariot races, such as those held in the Circus Maximus, the route was made counterclockwise as the strongest horses were tied on the left side of the cart, to facilitate the turn.
This rule of athletics could be applied to many other areas of everyday life. Numerous studies seem to indicate that, in the majority of cases, human beings tend to move counterclockwise, making left turns. Professor Watanabe Hitoshi devoted many years of study to analysing this hidden trend, going so far as to point out that even in situations where a crowd walks randomly, 75% of them follow an anti-clockwise direction. Or that when people are persecuted, 70% always flee in the opposite direction to the needles.
These behaviors still have no clear explanation although it is usually related to a natural instinct or some kind of anthropological explanation. The main reasons given to explain this behavior are that most people are right-handed, so they have the right leg more developed than the left; or that human beings always tend to move with their left side more protected, because that is where the heart is. In nature, the so-called ‘left turn’ effect can be seen in situations such as the flight of birds or the displacement of planets.