Why are the World Championships in Athletics held in Eugene, Oregon?
The World Championships in Athletics are usually held in world capitals. Rome, Beijing, Moscow, Paris and London have all taken turns hosting the biggest event in sport other than the Olympics.
This year, it is held for the first time in the United States. So how exactly did the World Championships in Athletics end in Eugene, Oregon, a crisp college town of 170,000 that isn’t even its state capital?
The answer to that question involves the evolution of a collegiate running powerhouse over the past 120 years as well as some quirks of sneaker history and commerce that have combined to make Eugene the unofficial capital of the city. American race, or “TrackTown USA” as the town likes to call itself.
It all started with Hayward
Fittingly, since the world championships will be held 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 were a few.) Hayward took over the program in 1904, and after just 15 years of his 44-year coaching career, the university named its football stadium after him and moved there. its athletic competitions.
Hayward has coached a string of Olympic champions, medalists, and world record holders that tracking nerds and Jeopardy champions know well, but most others don’t. Through them, Hayward established Eugene as a destination for the best of the best in American racing.
And then there was Bowerman, and “Pre”
It’s hard to underestimate the impact Bill Bowerman had on running and athletics, both in the United States and abroad. That journey began in 1948, when Bowerman succeeded Hayward as head athletics coach at Oregon.
The son of a former governor, Bowerman ran for Hayward, then became a high school teacher and football coach. It has produced dozens of Olympians and champions, including arguably the most legendary of all, Steve Prefontaine.
Prefontaine, or “Pre” as he was and always will be known, grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon, raced for the University of Oregon, and at some point in the 1970s held all American records for 2,000 to 10,000 meters. He was the epitome of rebellious running beauty who had seized the zeitgeist, but “Pre” died aged 24 in a car crash in 1975 just as he was hitting his prime. The Eugene trail where many runners will be training this week is the “Pre’s Trail”, a must visit for any serious runner.
Bowerman was more than his athletes.
On a trip to New Zealand to visit famed running coach Arthur Lydiard in 1962, Bowerman discovered the concept of “jogging” – running at an easier pace for elite athletes and anyone else interested in fitness. He was among those who introduced the concept to America, which contributed to the running boom of the 1970s.
If that wasn’t enough, he also invented the design of running shoe soles by pouring rubber into his kitchen waffle maker, a design that remains everywhere today. And in 1964, he went into business with a former miler to start a footwear company called Blue Ribbon Sports which later grew into a fairly successful business – Nike. Maybe you have heard of it.
Bowerman’s outsized reputation helped Hayward Field attract the Men’s Olympic Trials in Athletics in 1972. This stadium never lost its pre-war charm; it had a Fenway Park feel. It was the kind of place that suggested important things had happened there, and locals filled the place for major competitions, even if track and field meets elsewhere in the United States struggled to find an audience.
Olympic trials have been held there six more times since 1972, and now Hayward Field looks and feels more like a spaceship.
This former miler who co-founded Nike with Bill Bowerman, however, wanted something more. Phil Knight does this often.
The Nike influence
Knight never lost his love for running, for athletics, for his university and for the idea that Eugene, Oregon, is one of the running capitals of the world.
Since becoming 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 major funders of the $270 million renovation that Hayward Field underwent from 2018 to 2020. One of the reasons for continuing the renovation was to create a proper facility to accommodate the athletics world championships.
No voting. No problem.
Eugene originally offered to host the 2019 World Championships in Athletics, but lost to Doha, Qatar.
This outcome did not sit well in some circles. The United States had never hosted the event, even though the country has dominated athletics at the Olympics for decades. More teenagers in the United States participate in track and field than any other sport, but professional meets are sparsely attended.
Maybe, it was thought, a big event could change things in the biggest sports market in the world. 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 have been postponed from 2020 to 2021, which has also pushed back the World Championships in Athletics by a year. But on Friday night, an event about 120 years in the making finally opened at “TrackTown, USA.”