In its most primitive form, the sport of track and field probably antedates even the ancient Olympics by many years, perhaps centuries. Given this history, the first non-Olympic track and field World Championships should have occurred long ago. In fact, they are only coming up Aug. 7-14 in Helsinki.
''The inertia present in international track and field circles is astounding, '' says Gary Hill, managing editor of Track and Field News. He indicates that 20 years of prodding have preceded the inaugural championship.
So why has the sport's governing body dragged its feet so long? Partly because the Olympics have served as a convenient championship every four years.
But the Olympics have their drawbacks.They occur too far apart and invite political disruption. The '76 Games, for example, were boycotted by many African nations in protest over New Zealand's participation. (These nations felt New Zealand should have been banned for maintaining sports relations with apartheid South Africa.) And, of course, the 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by a number of countries, including the United States. Consequently, the Olympics haven't been a truly global competition since 1972.
The gathering of one sport, however, is not the political lightning rod that the Olympics tend to be. ''You won't find politics in simple world championships,'' says Hill, and while that may overstate the case somewhat, it's reasonable to assume that there won't be any major disruptions.
Until now, the non-Olympic competitions most closely resembling championships were the World Cup meets. One expert has called these all-star gatherings, held in 1977, 1979, and 1981, a stalking horse for the world championships. What has set them apart, however, has been a format that loosely groups competitors into regional teams.
The meet in Helsinki will be a hybrid, incorporating the best of what the Olympics and World Cup have to offer. Stiff qualifying standards will ensure that only the best athletes compete, a la the World Cup, without the endless preliminary rounds of the Olympics. But because athletes will be vying for individual and national honor, there will be more of the competitive purity of the Olympics, and less of the contrived feeling of the World Cup.
In many ways, Helsinki is an ideal spot for this first world championship (the second is scheduled for Rome in 1987). Besides being politically neutral, Finland has long enjoyed a romance with track and field. Scandinavia generally is big on the sport. Both Stockholm (1912) and Helsinki (1952) have hosted the Olympics, and Oslo has been the site of numerous world records, set on the now famous Bislet Stadium track. Finland, of course, is especially proud of such long-distance kings as Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren.
NBC Sports will devote 15 hours to telecasting the championships, including eight hours during the last two days. Coverage highlights could occur in:
* The women's sprints, where new world 100-meter record holder Evelyn Ashford of the US goes against East German rival Marlies Gohr, the deposed pace-setter.
* The men's 400-meter hurdles, where American Edwin Moses puts his incredible 80-race winning streak on the line against European record holder Harald Schmid of West Germany.
* The women's high jump, where indoor world record holder Tamara Bykova of the Soviet Union goes against West Germany's Ulrike Meyfarth, who owns the outdoor mark. Threatening to become a third party to this rivalry is American Louise Ritter, who could spring an upset.
* The men's 1500 meters, which will boast a star-studded field, including Steve Ovett, Steve Scott, and Sydney Maree. (Olympic champion Sebastian Coe is competing in the 800).
* The men's 800 meters, where Coe, who holds the world record, will be attempting to rebound from an uncharacteristic streak of four straight losing races this summer. Among his key foes will be versatile American Dave Patrick, who recently came close to beating Moses in a 400-meter hurdle race.
* The women's 3,000 meters, where American Mary Decker, fresh from breaking the American 800-meter mark, confronts a strong East European contingent.