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ATHLETICS

Why are the World Athletics Championships being held in Eugene, Oregon?

From Hayward Filed to Bowerman to Steve Prefontaine, the sleepy town of Eugene, Oregon is one of world athletics most hallowed locations.

Update:
Why are the World Athletics Championships being held in Eugene, Oregon?
PATRICK SMITHAFP

When it was announced that the little town of Eugene, Oregon would play host to the the World Athletics Championships, many scratched their heads. With that we decided to take a look at just why that decision was taken. Let’s get into it!

What’s the norm for World Championships locations?

When it comes to established traditions, the World championships in track and field have generally taken place in the world’s capital cities. Rome, Beijing, Moscow, Paris and London have enjoyed the honor of hosting the biggest event in the sport outside of the Olympic Games. This year, however, saw the curious announcement that the championships would not only be held in the United States for the first time, but in the town of Eugene, Oregon. A small university town of just 170,000 inhabitants and not even the capital of the state, just how did it happen?

The Athletics Championships are in Eugene, but why?

In short, the answer involves a few things: a collegiate giant of running, the world’s most famous sporting brand and of course a few curious historical circumstances, which all combined to make Eugene, Oregon the unofficial capital of running in the United States or “TrackTown U.S.A.” as it is commonly referred to.

The first factor in play or rather person, is Bill Hayward. A renowned and respected track and field coach from the University of Oregon, Hayward too control of the university’s program back in 1904. Across a 44-year career, it would take the institution just 15 years of witnessing the results of his expertises, before they decided to name the football stadium after him and then in turn begin holding their track meets there. Incidentally, the World Championships - if you didn’t know - are being held in Hayward Field. To be clear, Hayward coached a number of Olympic champions, medalists, and world-record holders. Indeed, it was through his efforts that Eugene became known as the place where th best and brightest of American running competed.

The effect of Bowerman, and “Pre”

Now that we’ve mentioned Hayward, it’s only right that the name of Bill Bowerman follows. It was 1948 when Bowerma took over Hayward’s post as the head track and field coach at Oregon. The son of a former governor of the state, Bowerman actually ran under Hayward’s tutelage before going on to become a high school teacher and football coach. Like his predecesor, he forged a host of Olympians and champions, including, arguably, the greatest ever, Steve Prefontaine.

Prefontaine, or “Pre” as he is commonly called, grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon and would eventually go on to run for the University of Oregon where - believe it or not - he held every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters during the 1970s. Before his tragic in a single-car crash in 1975 at the tender age of 24, “Pre” was considered the very embodiment of what running meant. To this day, the trail he ran for training purposes, now known as “Pre’s Trail” is considered a holy site for any runner.

Bill Bowerman was a true pioneer of running.

Continuind down the road of context, it would be remiss of us not to mention Bowerman’s visit to New Zealand in 1962. During a meeting with famed running coach Arthur Lydiard, Bowerman was introduced to the concept of “jogging” - running at an easier pace. The American would later be credited with bringing the concept back home, which of course led to running becoming widely popular in the 1970s as common citizens and not just athletes began to address their fitness. Going a step further, Bowerman also famously reinvented the design of running shoes - the sole specifically - by pouring rubber into his kitchen waffle iron.

In 1964, the famed coach would introduce the design to a former runner of his with whom he formed a shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports. That company would later become Nike which clearly needs no further description. On the back of the commercial success of his new outsize, Bowerman was able to bring the men’s Olympic trials of 1972 to Hayward Field. It wasn’t long before the venue’s charm worked it’s magic as evidenced by the large crowds that it began to draw. To date the Olympic trials have been held there six more times. By the way, that former runner that we referred to was Phil Knight.

Nike and Oregon go hand in hand

This perhaps is where everything gets tied together. Co-founder of Nike, Knight never lost his love for running, track and field, his university and most importantly for the concept of Eugene, Oregon being the mecca of running. Today, as one of the wealthiest men in the world, Knight has quite literally donated hundreds of dollars to the University of Oregon’s athletic and academic facilities. Indeed, both him and his wife, Penny, were the major backers of a $270 million project which saw Hayward Field renovated between 2018 and 2020. Knight’s intention was actually to create a facility that would be worth of hosting the World Athletics Championships.

A final point to note about Eugene, Oregon

Though it may sound cliche, there is an element of destiny to the idea that Eugene is currently hosting the World Championships. It was back in 2019 when the city lost out to Doha, Quatar after submitting a bid to host. There was of course disappointment, but many argued that while particpation in track and field in the United States is higher than many places the world over, evidenced by American dominance in the sport, the reality is, events are not well attended.

Whatever the case, World Athletics obviously saw value in taking the event to a place that has had a profound effect on it throught its history, such that without a voting process, the body awarded the championships to Eugene back in 2015. A pandemic delay aside, the sport has finally come ‘home’ after 120 years worth of history defining moments and efforts by a slew of athletes, coaches, businessmen and lovers of running.

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