Eugene, a place with athletics running through its DNA, is about to be at the centre of the athletics world. How will it handle the spotlight?
If golf has St Andrews, tennis has Wimbledon and cricket has Lord’s, then athletics has Eugene. Perhaps with the exception of Athens, few places in the world can lay claim to being as intrinsically linked with the sport as Oregon’s second-largest city. It isn’t known as Track Town, USA, for nothing.
Track and field, as they prefer to know it in the States, not to mention long-distance running, really is part of the DNA there. It is a place associated with, and made for, athletic endeavour.
It is a place to which the legendary coach Bill Bowerman returned from New Zealand in 1963, bringing with him the idea that recreational jogging could make an almighty impact on the nation’s health. The free jogging classes he produced literally started a movement.
It is a place where a University of Oregon student by the name of Phil Knight began to explore the idea of importing and selling running shoes. Working with his university coach Bowerman, he began looking into producing his own and created a company called Blue Ribbon Sports. That company would become Nike.
It is a place where the legend of the late Steve Prefontaine – Nike’s first superstar and the James Dean of athletics – was written.
People move to Eugene because of athletics… and they tend to stay. That was certainly the case for Bob Coll, owner of the Eugene Running Company – a store right at the heart of his local running community. He arrived from the east coast back in 1993 with his wife Laura, who was in the midst of a professional athletics career and wanted to see if the environment lived up to the hype. The couple have never left – and don’t ever intend to. ω
“I’ve been around the world and the thing about Eugene is that it’s very normal to be a runner here,” says Bob. “One of the things I noticed when we first moved here is the way runners will just run across the street and all the cars stop for them. That doesn’t happen in most places.”
Coll’s store is a hub through which locals and visitors will pass, whether that be for a new pair of shoes, just to shoot the breeze about athletics or to ask for directions and advice.
“The most common thing [I see] is for a high school boy or girl who’s just really into running and cross country and track and field. They’re graduating from high school and their parents want to do something nice for them – and what the kid wants to do is to go to Track Town, USA. They’re 18 years old and they’re making their pilgrimage.”
So just what is it they’re coming to see? Hayward Field, the famed centrepiece of these impending World Championships, looms large but there’s also a huge network of trails to be explored and landmarks to be visited. The most famous of these is “Pre’s Trail”, a four-mile route built at the suggestion of Prefontaine, having returned from competing in Europe and been impressed by the parcours exercise trails he found in towns and cities there. “Pre’s rock”, a memorial, at the site of the car crash which claimed his life in 1975 at the age of just 24, has a steady stream of visitors, too.
Coll argues, however, that one of Prefontaine’s contemporaries played just as significant a role in Eugene’s athletic emergence.
“We have an Olympic flag hanging up in the store that flew over Hayward field during our first Olympic trials in 1972 when five young distance runners from Eugene made the team,” Coll explains. “One of those was Steve Prefontaine, but in the 10,000m there was a guy named Jon Anderson, who would go on to win the Boston Marathon in 1973, incidentally becoming the first athlete to win what was really a major road race wearing Nike shoes.
“His Dad was mayor of Eugene [at the time] and basically got so excited [about his son winning Boston] they passed the initiative to build the bike paths on both sides of the river that runs through the middle of town.
“Pre’s Trail had been constructed maybe six months before that, so all of a sudden we had bike paths on both sides of the river that connected to Pre’s Trail, and all sorts of bark chip trails started popping up around town. And that’s when I feel that migration dramatically increased, where runners and athletes were moving to Eugene to pursue that dream and that raised the visibility.”
Peter Thompson is another outsider who has developed a lengthy attachment to Eugene. The Briton, the first coach to decathlete Daley Thompson, moved there in 1975 for postgraduate work. “I was only going to stay for one year and come back [to Britain] and I wasn’t going to coach. Within about four months of being in Eugene, however, I’d been talked into coaching.”
He coached the University of Oregon women, as well as the Oregon Track Club elite and Athletics West athletes, before leaving Eugene in 1989. He returned in 2011, however, and currently is the Performance Director of the Spirit of Oregon Foundation. His is also a love affair with the town, not to mention the country.
“I really embraced US society as a whole because in many countries there are people who will want to cut the tall poppy down or hammer in the proud nail,” he says. “But, in the US, I was embraced by this ‘can-do’ culture and, no matter what you said, people would say ‘go for it’ and I really enjoyed that.”
When I ask him about the must-visit places in Eugene, he replies: “I’ll take you on a tour. The environment here is just incredible.”
Pre’s Rock is one of the first things he mentions, as well as routes along the Amazon Trail, Spencer Creek Highway (an out and back route with mile markers) and a spectacular Ridge Line Trails option. But the location of a session which worked its way into local legend also comes to his mind.
“I’ll show you the 30th Avenue Drill,” he continues, preparing to explain what was the brainchild of the renowned former University of Oregon coach Bill Dellinger, who succeeded Bowerman.
“After warming up, the athletes would run a three-quarter mile on the track at Hayward Field and then run about four miles over a huge hill and down to Lane Community college and do another three-quarter mile. They would then come back over the huge hill, back to Hayward field and do another three-quarter mile.
“Dellinger would say the focus should be on those three three-quarter miles and in between you should be running about six-minute mile pace or somewhere in that region.
“But what Dellinger didn’t know – or pretended not to know – was that the athletes had a record from the start until the finish. So you’d see this group – Matt Centrowitz, Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa, Ken Martin, Billy McChesney – going over 30th Avenue [giving it their all].”
To see these groups of elite athletes of the 70s and early 80s – Olympians at the top of their game – surging their way through town further cemented that connection between the sport and the community. Thompson can’t escape the feeling, however, that something of that bond is starting to break.
The remodelling of Hayward Field – a venue which, much like Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, was in desperate need of an overhaul – has been spectacular but some feel it has brought with it an air of exclusivity.
“It’s more hidden, you know, it’s not so open because people can’t go in and watch a practice,” says Thompson. “That doesn’t happen. [Previously] If I wasn’t coaching, I’d go up to the top of the stands and just watch the rhythm of people training.
“That’s what Bill Bowerman used to do after he set the workouts. He would go to the top of the stands and he would coach from there because he wanted to see the rhythm of the athletes in front of him.”
The fact that the University of Oregon team – or The Ducks, as they’re known – aren’t faring so well right now is also a factor. Head coach Robert Johnson has recently left his post, not having his contract renewed after the team finished 11th overall on the women’s side and joint 25th on the men’s side at the recent NCAA Championships which took place at Hayward Field in front of noticeably smaller crowds.
The Prefontaine Classic and US Trials have also been staged there this year – with plenty of empty seats on show, too – and at the time of writing, there were still World Championships tickets available.
The expense of getting to Eugene is an obstacle, as is the fact that European fans also have the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and the European Championships in Munich as options on which they can choose to spend their money this summer.
When it comes to the US spectators, it would appear there is a still a real battle to win hearts and minds.
I ask Thompson if something has been lost with the remodelling of Hayward Field.
“Definitely,” he says. “And I think the World Championships will either serve to help to bridge that gap, or it will amplify the gap. I hope it’s the former and it will draw people back in.”
Drawing more people towards to track and field is not a new struggle in the US. It has its work cut out against the behemoths of American Football, basketball, baseball – even ice hockey. And yet Thompson can see ways to grow an athletic audience off the back of the World Championships’ first visit to the USA.
“It’s possible to get niche audiences and that’s been shown by biathlon, which has got a huge following on TV in the US. Golf and cycling, too,” he says.
“People will criticise track and field athletics, saying it’s too long, that the meets are boring and whatever – but it’s about the presentation. If you present the competition, then people aren’t going to be bored but if every race is the chase of a record then it’s only going to end in tears.
“If you look at golf, people are watching tournaments all the way through from Thursday to Sunday. It’s on all the time. Cycling has reached the point where it’s immensely popular on TV in the US. They used to have a one-hour show in the US on every day of the Tour de France. That progressed to showing the final week in more detail but now all 21 days are shown in full, so don’t tell me that track and field needs to shorten up. It can do that on occasion, in a similar way to how cricket has a whole mishmash and variety of formats. Track and field should be looking for that model rather than saying ‘all our meets should be shorter and snappier and we’ve got to kind of keep people’s attention’.
“You will have to do that if you’re only selling records, but if you help educate people to watch races then it’s very different.
“If they’re 100 per cent involved in a race, and when you’re watching a good race, you never look at the clock.”
Thompson can see a missed opportunity, too, when it comes to the high school and collegiate system in the US. In terms of athlete development, it is second to none. The problem arrives with the next step.
“In the US in high school, 1,560,000 students do track and field [every year],” he adds. “Of those, less than 3.4 per cent go to college to continue and then, of those, probably less than five per cent go post-collegiate. So when athletes are 23, 24 years old – before they have reached their peak for track and field athletics – they stop doing it.
“So you’ve got this wonderful development model, but there’s nothing for them afterwards.
“The United States of America has the best track and field development programme in the world. But they don’t know that and they don’t know how to optimise it. They don’t know how to take it forward and there are a whole variety of reasons for that. But, at the end of the day, what I would say is that the potential here is immense.”
In terms of the potential for these Championships to inspire, Coll can see huge possibilities, too. During the recent national high school championships, he could see the impact of competing at Hayward Field on the aspiring athletes.
“We had a ton of those kids through the store and their parents and their team-mates and their entourages and, I can tell you, every single one of those kids was actually thrilled beyond belief to have run in the new Hayward Field.”
Of the remodelled venue, he adds: “I think it’s brilliant. I think it was absolutely necessary and it sets us up for the next 50 years at least to continue to host world class track and field meets in our town because that was not going to happen before.
“We were not going to have the World Championships here [without it]. We were not going to have the NCAA national championships under a 20-year contract if we didn’t have that stadium. We weren’t going to continue to have the Diamond League meet here. The next generation is thrilled to have that type of facility.”
The above are all talking points which are being raised right now through the town – whether that be at Track Town Pizza, where you can order everything from a “decathlon” to a “pole vault” or at the Original Pancake House, where Dellinger can still be found holding court. A penny for his thoughts.
“I think Bill’s something like 84 years old now but he still goes on Thursdays to have breakfast with his posse and talk track and field,” says Coll.
“You walk in there and it’s all University of Oregon, all the athletes that have excelled in the Olympic Games and a lot of Steve Prefontaine images on the wall. You immerse yourself into that world when you walk into these places.”
Tradition, renewal, potential. Could this World Championships be the perfect recipe for success? It’s time to find out.
» This article first appeared in the July issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here