Eugene, Oregon is a secluded, untroubled place. Home of the University of Oregon, last week this college town two hours south of Portland hosted the 2011 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships at historic Hayward Field. With its vast student population having migrated, the town settled back into its quiet summer slumber, its trees arcing beneath the weight of their season’s green dress, the air warm and radiant, even though ambient with pollen. If you didn’t check the Weather Channel for the rest of the year, you’d think you died and gone to heaven, so accommodating was the university, the town, and the climate to the sport of track and field. For the 40,000+ track fans who flew in, drove to, then strolled through the turnstiles under warm, mostly sunny conditions, it was like walking into some track and field inspired Field of Dreams.
But Tracktown USA, as it’s been dubbed, might just as well be our version of Potterville to George Bailey’s Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, an alternate reality where the characters are generally the same, but their personalities and likes have fundamentally changed. For in the wake of the 2008 Olympic Trials, last week’s four-day USATF Nationals, and in preparation for next summer’s Olympic Trials, we have seen what might have been had track and field managed to join other American sports and escape its restricting, cradle-to-grave amateur past and evolve into a, if not untainted, at least decidedly less insular professional future.
Filled stands, knowledgeable, excited fans, businesses with track-oriented names, newspaper headlines trumpeting the exploits of stars whose autographs were eagerly sought by the area young, all the trappings of a major sport were on display in and around Eugene.
“It was an infomercial for the state of Oregon and its love affair with the sport of track and field,” said director of track and field at the University of Oregon, Vin Lananna, to the Eugene Register-Guard. “I’m most concerned about what’s good for the sport, and I think the four days in Eugene, and this community, did a lot for track and field in the United States.”
Or perhaps it simply reminded us as we again drove true north along the I-5 to Portland for our flights home that the parallel universe that is Eugene is only that, a singular manifestation held up against a world which once again reverted to the reality where track and field is all but forgotten. As if Dallas were the lone American city to embrace football in the manner it does. But if only for that one week this year, and a fortnight again next, at least we had, and will have that to console and comfort us. And as long as that one small alternate reality exists and pulses strong, we can hold out hope for more to follow in some distant future ahead.