After the foundation of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) in 1912, it was clear there needed to be a European committee as part of the governing board. While the idea originally met with some resistance, it was the active promotion by the Hungarian representative
Szilard Stankovits that bought the initiative to life following the Los Angeles congress of the IAAF in 1932. Following this meeting, the Council officially designated a European Commission (chaired by Stankovits) with the task of reviewing the conditions for the organisation of the European Athletics Championships.
The first official meeting of what was later to be known as the European Commission was held in Budapest on 7 January 1934. The organization of the first European Athletics Championships was officially awarded to Turin. These first games were men-only and were notable by the absence of the British delegation, which opposed an event seen as competing with its own British Empire Games. The next championships took place in Paris in 1938, but after Stankovits' death the same year and the cancellation of all events during WWII, the Commission lay dormant until 1945.
During the post-war period, and with an increase in membership both at IAAF and European levels, the Commission quickly changed to an independent association, including the related financial and political independence from its international parent. Its budget, for example, increased from £100 in 1951 (for postal expenses) to US$40,000 per year in 1970. It was also during that period that the Commission started experimenting and developing a greater range of events besides the European Championships: the European Junior Championships (1964), the European Cup (1965), the Indoor championships (1966).
The Commission officially became a Committee in July 1952, gradually expanding its independence. The members of the Commission were elected at regular IAAF Congresses until 1966 when, for the first time, their selection became European-only. The shift also reflects the increased income received from television rights, as earnings took off as a direct result of broadcasting arrangements. The 1969 European championships secured a record US$90,000 from Eurovision for the rights to broadcast the event. It was then decided that the European Committee would directly receive these funds in order to benefit its members (rather than having it redistributed by the IAAF.)
On 31 October 1969, the Association of the European Members of the IAAF was constituted at a formal meeting of the European Committee of the IAAF in Bucharest. Its Constitutional Rules were ratified at the IAAF Congress in Stockholm, August 1970, and came into force at the first European Athletics Congress in Paris on 7 November 1970. Ad Paulen, who was president of the European Committee of the IAAF, was elected as the first President and simultaneously became (or remained) European representative on the IAAF Council. He held this position until his election as President of the IAAF in 1976.
European Athletics' current headquarters in Lausanne.
The 1970s were also the time for European Athletics to raise the issue of doping. They started establishing more systematic controls, pushing for tests to be extended to non-European athletes as well. The European Championships of 1974 included a wider range of banned products than previously, with anabolic steroids being checked at all other subsequent events. As a continent, Europe clearly was "the nucleus of the IAAF" and an example to be followed for other IAAF members. As such, the European Association became an experimental platform for international athletics, organising events before they were recognized by the International Olympic Committee. For example, the women's marathon was included in the 1982 championships and became an Olympic distance for female athletes at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
The late 1980s saw major new challenges for sports in general, and European athletics in particular, with the increased professionalization of athletes and the breakdown of the Eastern Bloc. There was a huge increase in member federations (34 to 49 between 1987 and 1991) and the growing complexity of financial and commercial negotiations as well as an ever-expanding calendar of events meant that the organisation had to adapt. Till Luft, from Germany, became the first full-time General Secretary in 1995 and worked at the first European Athletics office in Frankfurt and, after April 1996, Darmstadt. A second office was also opened in London, next to the IAAF. A few years later, because of the somewhat unfavourable nature of the German tax system towards non-profit organizations, the proposal was made to merge both offices and move out of Germany. The move to Switzerland and necessary changes to Constitutional Rules were approved at the Athens Congress of 2003, and the new location opened in Lausanne (where several other sports organizations, including the IOC, were already located) on 1 January 2004.