Sonia O’Sullivan: World Championships are coming to TrackTown USA

The world athletics championships are in Eugene, Oregon, just over three weeks away. This will be the first time the championships are held in the United States and the funny thing is that even if you associate everything American with being big and brash, it’s really going to feel like they take place in a small town.

Eugene is in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, with a population of just over 170,000. It’s nestled among the fir trees on the banks of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers and if you ever come here it’s easy to see why the city is also known both as the Emerald City and, affectionately in sports circles, as Track Town USA.

It is the original home of Nike. And now the University of Oregon and the newly renovated Hayward Field take center stage. Most elite athletes will, at some point in their careers, be able to compete on the hallowed grounds of Hayward Field, and the place has a certain magic attached to it.

It dates back to the days of Steve Prefontaine, the iconic long-distance runner who filled the stands during his college years at the University of Oregon. With his flowing locks, mustache and aggressive running style, Prefontaine was something of a cult following in the early 1970s and he finished fourth at the Munich Olympics. His mystique still lives on today after his tragic car accident in 1975, when he died aged just 24.

The town of Eugène is anchored in the memory of Préfontaine and this will be evident to all who come to visit and attend the World Championships. Pre’s Trail is a 6.9 mile flat loop over the famous mulched woodchips, not everyone’s favorite but so well known that everyone picks it up and tries it.

Soft, spongy woodchips are often filled in when an event is happening – looks and smells amazing, but trail sponginess can take more energy than it gives back, so probably not the best place to run in the days leading up to a race. There’s no shortage of trails through Eugene, but Pre’s Trail is the big draw here.

Another well-worn path climbs the hill to Pre’s Rock, the exact spot where Prefontaine lost control of his car on his way home in 1975 after celebrating a win at Hayward Field. His legendary status has evolved over the years, and now athletes from across the United States come to pay their respects, often leaving shoes, shirts, flowers, medals, or just little notes as a token of their visit. All in the hope of touching a piece of Pré’s mind.

Hayward Field itself is named after Bill Hayward, who coached track and field at the University of Oregon for 44 years. It was purposely built to host athletics events only where the crowd has a clear view of every live event from every seat. These seats are the most comfortable you could hope to find in an outdoor stadium – green and yellow to reflect the colors of the University of Oregon, with plush padding and plenty of legroom.

Other than the hammer, all on-court events are contained within the track, so the lowest level seats are virtually on the track. It’s a massive stadium with a roof that looks a bit like Aviva’s, but doesn’t quite cover all the seats, which can be a problem when there are so many rainy days in Eugene each year. . As for the stadiums, it’s intimate and easy to get around.

This whole place has a small town feel to it. There can’t be many world championship venues over the years that have hosted high school and college athletes throughout the preparatory period. Hayward Field never goes a weekend without a track meet and that hasn’t changed just because the world championships are coming to town. Just three weeks ago, the Prefontaine Classic attracted athletes from all over the world who came to test the track and familiarize themselves with the surroundings.

Because it’s such a community venue, it’s hard to imagine what it will be like when the world’s top athletes arrive next month. What will the atmosphere be like? If it was packed, the place would be buzzing. But in my experience here, that’s a big “if.”

In all the times I have visited the stadium in the past 12 months, it has never been close to full capacity. I fear a lack of atmosphere and energy if the places are not filled during the championships. The athletes will do their part and the track is as fast as possible. But I wouldn’t be so sure there will be massive crowds at many sessions.

This is the only downside of such a small town hosting the event. Even though Eugene is a place where athletics are part of the fabric, you can still buy tickets for most sessions quite easily. The cost of the ticket is a factor, as is the price of the limited number of hotel rooms available for people coming from out of town.

The United States is not like Europe when it comes to athletics. There will be no people coming from afar to attend the event. Even the word “athletics” confuses the locals – they say “athletics”.

I sometimes feel like as a country they cling much more to the legends of years gone by. Surely the current stars of the sport haven’t connected enough with the American public to entice them to attend the championships. There’s no sense there that people really understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The American sports public just doesn’t see it that way.

Which is a shame because it’s a special place. It is a magnificent stadium in which fans of the sport will instantly feel at home. Even when walking through the concourse at the back of the stadium, the surface is on-track, meaning fans can save their feet while walking to their seats. When you take a trip to the bathroom, there are athlete bib numbers, Olympic medals, photos sealed in the tiles – everywhere you look there is a reminder of the rich history of athletics in the States -United. A niche market perhaps, but those who know their track stars will see connections littered all over the stadium.

I just wonder if today’s athletes and fans can truly appreciate what’s happened before and what’s happening right before their eyes. There is no doubt that records will be broken during these championships and that the competition will be intense. It would be a shame if all of that was lost for the vast majority of sports fans in one of the great sporting nations on the planet.

You just have to hope Americans realize that this is a rare opportunity to be part of history in their own backyard. For all the costs involved, priceless souvenirs are on offer here.

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