American track athletes showed up. Did American fans?

By: New York Times |

Updated: July 25, 2022 3:13:53 pm

Silver medalist Kara Winger, of the United States, celebrates after the women's javelin throw at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, July 22, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

By Scott Cacciola

Kara Winger arrived at the track and field world championships as one of the most decorated javelin throwers in American history. A nine-time national champion, she had persevered through injuries, including two knee surgeries, to compete at four Olympic Games.

On Friday, though, Winger was in fifth place before her final throw at Hayward Field, where the world championships were held. She had never won a medal in a global competition, and she plans to retire at the end of the season. This was her last shot.

“I’m two hours from my hometown,” said Winger, 36, who grew up in Vancouver, Washington, “and I felt like every single person in that stadium was cheering for me.”

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Silver medalist Kara Winger, of the United States, celebrates after the women’s javelin throw at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, July 22, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

For the first time, the track and field world championships were staged in the United States — and American athletes like Winger made the most of the experience. Winger saved her best for last, winning the silver medal with a ferocious final throw. She was still celebrating when Sydney McLaughlin, one of the United States’ most talented young stars, won the women’s 400-meter hurdles by breaking her own world record.

“The overall Team USA vibe — just seeing people all over the track and inside the oval completely dominating — has been incredibly fun to be a part of,” Winger said.

Track and field officials were hoping that hosting the world championships in the United States would help reignite American interest in the sport. And while athletes like Winger delivered, thrilling fans in Eugene, which has long been a track and field hotbed, one meet is not a cure-all. As Winger can attest, progress takes commitment.

“We need to be in this market,” said Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body of track and field. “It’s important. It’s not punching its weight.”

The world championships were a resounding success for American athletes. Entering Sunday, which was the final day of the 10-day competition, the United States had won 28 medals, 10 of them gold, far outpacing every other country. Ethiopia was next with 10 medals, four of them gold. Athing Mu won the women’s 800 meters Sunday night to add to the total.

Kara Winger, of the United States, competes in the women’s javelin throw final at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, July 22, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

American men swept the podium in the 100 meters and in the shot put. Noah Lyles won the men’s 200 meters. The women’s 4×100-meter relay team stormed past Jamaica for an unexpected world title, while the men’s 4×100-meter relay team, notoriously clumsy in years past, held onto the baton long enough to claim silver.

And even as Allyson Felix, one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. history, made her final appearance in a national team uniform, a new crop of stars has already stepped forward to fill the void.

“This was really huge to have a meet in the U.S. where my whole family could be there, and it just made it a whole lot more enjoyable for sure,” McLaughlin said after her race. “Knowing that I’m in the same time zone that I train in, and all the advantages of having it on home soil, it really played to our advantage for sure.”

There was plenty of energy inside the stadium, but the event’s domestic reach seemed more limited.

Sydney Mclaughlin, of the United States, wins in the semifinal of the women’s 400-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Last weekend, a little more than 2 million people tuned in to NBC to watch the championships Saturday and Sunday — smaller audiences than those that watched NBC’s same-day coverage of the British Open, which drew 3.3 million viewers Saturday and 4.5 million for Sunday’s final round.

It hardly helped that viewers needed a spreadsheet to figure out what and how to watch. During the week, the world championships were broadcast on the USA Network, a cable channel that NBC owns, and on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. (Track and field landed on Peacock when USA showed professional wrestling.)

The world championships are not an ideal spectator event. The meet stretches across well over a week, testing the patience of even the most dedicated fans. Coe left open the possibility of recalibrating — and perhaps compressing — the schedule in the future.

 

Sebastian Coe gives a bronze medal to Allyson Felix, of the United States, after the 4×400-meter mixed relay final at the World Athletics Championships Friday, July 15, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

“I’m never going to jettison the philosophy and the history of our sport,” he said. “But I do think we have to recognize that 10 days, pretty much morning and evening, is quite a challenge.”

At the same time, Coe listed some of the inherent advantages that ought to help boost the popularity of track and field in the United States, starting with its powerhouse national team, which could have paid rent for the time its athletes spent on the medal podium at Hayward Field. The United States has around 50 million people who identify themselves as avid runners, Coe said. And at the high school level, hundreds of thousands of teenagers participate in track and field and in cross-country running.

But the United States has a “cluttered, complicated marketplace” for sports, Coe said.

“I’m probably not going to be Mr. Popular for saying this, but I don’t think in years past the sport has been marketed as well as it could have been in the U.S.,” Coe said. “I think there was a complacency for many years that it was enough to come back from the Olympic Games or world championships atop the medal stand. I think there’s now a much greater recognition that, in itself, is important, but it isn’t enough.”

Organizers in the United States are experimenting with a variety of more fan-friendly events. They want top American athletes to stay in the country for longer — most professionals spend their summers in Europe competing on the Diamond League circuit — and to get fans up close to the action at meets that are more compact.

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Before the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, World Athletics and USA Track & Field have partnered to form an initiative called Project USA to encourage investment in the sport. World Athletics is funding a documentary series in the style of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” which has enhanced the mainstream appeal of Formula One auto racing. Coe said that a world road racing championship is in the works, with several “high-profile cities in the U.S.” expressing interest in hosting events.

Coe also wants to continue to develop the Continental Tour, which operates partly as a sort of feeder system for track and field’s more upper-crust events.

“When we created the Continental Tour, there wasn’t a single American city that held their hand up that wanted to do that,” he said. “Now we’ve got two or three, and we need to grow that.”

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