And so it begins with Canadian hammer thrower Adam Keenan opening the competition at the 18th World Athletics Championships from the glittering new Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon before an expectant fan base and a hopeful World Athletics governing body.
Still, there will be more on the line in Eugene over the next ten days than just deciding who the best runners, jumpers, and throwers are in 49 events. Eugene ’22 will almost certainly be a referendum on the state of the sport itself in America.
Once (a long time ago) track and field held its own in the consciousness of the American sporting fans. But over the span of four decades (at least) the sport morphed into the poster-child for PED abuse and governing corruption, and fans began walking away.
Truth is, athletics wasn’t much worst than other sports in this regard, just more vulnerable. Major pro sports were in the too-big-to-fail category with too much money invested in them. Track was just big enough, but just small enough, too (meaning no money) to take the brunt of the public scorn. Plus, athletics actually performed drug tests (though they didn’t always report the bad ones).
Now, with the 18th World Championships coming to the USA for the first time, World Athletics hopes to turn its franchise around in the States.
It won’t be easy, though it is more than a little ironic, in that, the U.S.A. remains the dominant track and field seed bed in the world. Its athletes consistently capture more world and Olympic medals than any other country.
Yet despite that dominance, the sport has never been embraced by the American public outside the quadrennial Olympic window, with the notable exception of Eugene, Oregon, aka, TrackTown USA.
“This is a very important market place for us,” WA head Sebastian Coe told Reuters.com (this is the money quote every article lifts). “It’s the largest sports market in the world and we need to be there in higher profile. We don’t want to come out of the world championships in Oregon without a very defined footprint for our sport in that country.”
Of course, track has always had a substantial footprint in America, but only at the high school and collegiate levels. Part of that is because track is inexorably tied to the Olympics, which has never fully escaped its perception as an amateur-based competition.
They can talk all they want about rings and championships, but in America, sports are defined by their Benjamins, you know, moolah, greenbacks, the almighty dollar. What isn’t?
So, when shiny medals are all you have to offer in terms of stakes, how do you compete against the $200 million contract extensions we hear about everyday on TV chat shows? And with the Russian bear still in WA-imposed hibernation for its state-run drug complicity, where is the national rivalry for the U.S. that once fueled public interest?
Plus, TrackTown and the new Hayward Field notwithstanding, using Eugene, Oregon as the lever for this resurrection is where WA’s real gamble lies.
Eugene-Springfield, Oregon is only the 32nd largest metro area in the western U.S., by far the smallest market ever to host these championships.
But with Eugene being the birthing ground of Nike, the footwear and apparel juggernaut that dominates the sport domestically and internationally, World Athletics awarded Eugene its signature event without the inconvenience of a bidding process. This despite the fact that Eugene doesn’t have a major airport, sufficient hotel rooms, or enough eateries.
One media friend found accommodations in the University of Oregon dorms where on a sunny day without air-conditioning, the temperature in his room skied to 32°C (90F) for $150 a night. Fortunately, it’s just a short walk to the stadium.
Despite all the naysaying, there is still hope that Eugene’22 pays off. One question is whether the sport can rise above the constant chaos roiling through America? Is there enough firepower in Eugene to match the January 6th committee, the newest pandemic variant, raging inflation, Kevin Durant’s search for NBA happiness, and Donald J. Trump?
Maybe if Oregon-native Ryan Crouser comes out for the shot put competition wearing Sha’Carri Richardson as a dangling fish-netted body piercing, who knows, that might put up a fight against the Kardashians and the Real Housewives. But in lieu of that, we go back to using the sport, itself, as the best teacher.
Having been a great champion himself, Sebastian Coe knows that to achieve his success required a long attention to a single purpose, not just one great workout. For athletes that means week after week of uninterrupted training leading to a peak performance.
There’s a notable tendency in athletics toward cynicism and ball-breaking that one 10-day track meet won’t change, no matter how well it goes.
As such, these next ten days should not be looked upon as an exclamation point to a long process of delivering a World Championships to America. Instead, Eugene’22 should be used as an ampersand (&), as in, now what?
First, we wish the athletes well. But we know they will do their job, they always do. So, let’s measure their impact on the wider national sporting consciousness from way up there in TrackTown USA, then build out from there.
That is what’s possible for athletics in the USA at Eugene ’22, a fresh start. And that would be a real legacy for the new Haywardville, a real page turner.
But the key will be in the follow up. What comes next and next and next will be just as important as the single meet, even if that single meet is the World Championships.
(WA just announced Tallahassee, Florida has been selected as host site for the 2026 World Cross Country Championships). That’s the spirit!