Why is the world’s biggest track meet in a small college town in Oregon?

By: NYT | Eugene, Oregon |

July 17, 2022 1:47:16 pm

Fan watch during the World Athletics Championships. (AP)

By Matthew Futterman,

World championships in track and field generally take place in world capitals. Rome, Beijing, Moscow, Paris and London have all taken a turn hosting the biggest event in the sport other than the Olympic Games.

This year, it’s being held in the United States for the first time. So how exactly did the World Athletics Championships end up in Eugene, Oregon, a crunchy university town of 170,000 that isn’t even the capital of its state?

The answer to that question involves the evolution of a collegiate running powerhouse in the past 120 years as well as a few quirks of history and the sneaker business that combined to make Eugene the unofficial capital of American running, or TrackTown USA, as the city likes to call itself.

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It Began With Hayward

Fittingly enough, since the world championships will take place at a stadium called Hayward Field, the story begins with Bill Hayward, the first renowned track and field coach at the University of Oregon. (There have been a few.) Hayward took over the program in 1904, and after a mere 15 years into his 44-year coaching career, the university named its football stadium after him and moved its track meets there.

Hayward coached a series of Olympic champions, medalists and world record-holders that track nerds and “Jeopardy!” champions know well but most others do not. Through them, Hayward established Eugene as a destination for the best of the best in American running.

And Then There Was Bowerman — and “Pre”

It’s difficult to underestimate how large an effect Bill Bowerman had on running and track and field in the United States and abroad. That journey began in 1948 when Bowerman succeeded Hayward as the head track and field coach at Oregon.

The son of a former governor, Bowerman ran for Hayward and then became a high school teacher and football coach. He produced dozens of Olympians and champions, including, arguably, the most mythical of them all, Steve Prefontaine.

Prefontaine — or “Pre,” as he was and always will be known — grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon, ran for the University of Oregon and at one point in the 1970s held every U.S. record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. He was the embodiment of running’s rebellious beauty that had caught the zeitgeist, but “Pre” died at 24 in a single-car crash in 1975, just as he was hitting his prime. The trail in Eugene where many a runner will be training this week is “Pre’s Trail,” a bucket list visit for any serious runner.

Bowerman was so much more than his athletes.

During a journey to New Zealand to visit famed running coach Arthur Lydiard in 1962, Bowerman learned of the concept of “jogging” — running at an easier pace for elite athletes and anyone else interested in fitness. He is among those credited with bringing the concept to America, which helped produce the running boom of the 1970s.

If that wasn’t enough, he also invented the design of the sole of running shoes by pouring rubber into his kitchen waffle iron, a design that remains everywhere today. And in 1964, he went into business with a former miler of his to start a shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports that later became a pretty successful company — Nike. Perhaps you have heard of it.

The Mecca

Bowerman’s outsize reputation helped Hayward Field lure the men’s Olympic trials in track and field in 1972. That stadium never lost its prewar charm; it had a Fenway Park feel to it. It was the kind of venue that suggested important things had taken place there, and the locals packed the place for the big competitions, even as track meets elsewhere in the United States struggled to find an audience.

The Olympic trials have been held there six more times since 1972, and now Hayward Field looks and feels more like a spaceship.

That former miler who co-founded Nike with Bowerman wanted something more, though. Phil Knight often does.

The Nike Influence

Knight never lost his love for running, for track and field, for his university and for the idea of Eugene being listed among the world capitals of running.

Since he became one of the richest men in the world, Knight has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Oregon’s athletic and academic facilities.

He and his wife, Penny, were the major backers of the $270 million renovation Hayward Field underwent from 2018 to 2020. One of the reasons for pushing ahead with the renovation was to create a proper facility for hosting World Athletics Championships.

No Vote. No Problem.

Eugene initially bid to host the 2019 World Athletics Championships, but it lost to Doha, Qatar.

That outcome did not go over well in certain circles. The United States had never hosted the event, even though the country has dominated track and field at the Olympics for decades. More teenagers in the U.S. participate in track and field than in any other sport, but professional meets are sparsely attended.

Perhaps, the thinking went, a big event might change things in the world’s biggest sports market. In 2015, without holding a bidding process, World Athletics announced that it had awarded the 2021 championships to Eugene.

Then the pandemic happened and changed the global sports calendar. The Olympics were postponed from 2020 to 2021, which pushed the World Athletics Championships back a year as well. But Friday night, an event roughly 120 years in the making finally opened in TrackTown USA.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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