This question came up in one of my classes today. All athletics tracks in the world have the athletes run in a counter-clockwise (ccw) direction. It is now a rule of the International Athletics Association, but why did it happen?
There are a lot of man-made things which turn ccw. For example carousels, windmills, revolving doors, the usual direction in which people spin Hula Hoops, most washers and dryers, and baseball runners. So do most things spin ccw?
No, not really. There are many things that move clockwise: phonographs, CDs, Monopoly board pieces, door knobs, pencil sharpeners, and can openers.
This doesn’t get us any nearer an answer. One of my students suggested it is because most people are right-handed (and right-footed), but this doesn’t appear to be the reason, since in track running there is actually more force on the inside leg which is the left one.
The best answer seems to come from the direction we read. Most languages are read from left to right. It is true that Chinese and Arabic are read from right to left and traditional Japanese is read downwards left to right, but these are the exceptions.
For many people the natural way to see things is from left to right. So the spectators at the original Olympics in Greece would want to see the runners run past from their left to their right. To do this the runners would need to run counter-clockwise.
Here is the future Olympic Stadium for Beijing 2008.