As the World Championships pitch up in Eugene, will athletics’ big bet on the US pay off? | Ed Warner

This week, World Athletics will discover whether its bold gamble on the future of the World Championships might just pay off. A boutique venue in the third biggest city in the 27th largest state in the USA is a radical departure from the champs that have gone before. But it’s no coincidence that Eugene, Oregon (population, 178,000) is in Nike’s backyard. This is Track Town USA.

The leaders of global track and field have typically had bigger eyes than stomachs (and wallets), targeting host cities considered commensurate with the prestige that goes with their sport’s #1 Olympic status. But without sufficient financial muscle to promote the events effectively, successive World Champs – London 2017 aside – have typically taken place in front of disappointingly high numbers of empty seats.

Oregon22 has been different from inception. First, the venue was decided without the conventional competitive bidding process. The disgraced former leadership of World Athletics (then, the IAAF), decided they simply had to grasp the proffered opportunity of a first ever American staging. Then, the requirement for a financial underwrite by the national government was, it seems, set aside – all to secure that American dream.

The biggest dreamer in all of this is Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, graduate of the University of Oregon in Eugene, and generous sporting and educational benefactor in the city. There can be little doubt that these championships would not be happening without his support from him – even though Asics, not Nike, is the official World Athletics kit partner. (Remove the ambush marketing opportunity…)

Just as Formula One travels the global circuit of mega-cities, it still views Monaco as its spiritual home. And for the world of track & field globally, Eugene is the equivalent of Monaco: it’s the spiritual home. It’s small, intimate, legendary, it’s unique

Niels de Vos, head of Oregon22 and previously London 2012 chief executive

Knight’s love of track and field extends to his headlining the more than 50 benefactors who have together entirely funded the US$270 million rebuilding of the iconic Hayward Field venue that will stage this month’s competition.

The old, smaller stadium was always packed with knowledgeable fans for the annual Prefontaine Classic. For these World Champs, Hayward Field can seat almost 25,000. This is a big step down from the 40,000 requirement that World Athletics always used to insist on – think eyes versus stomach again – but still a stiff marketing test given the modest size of the local population.

The current World Athletics leadership, under president Seb Coe, hopes Oregon22 will be its bridgehead into the United States, cracking open the market well ahead of the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. By then Coe will have finished his last term of office and must be hoping for a legacy of growth to build on his work so far cleaning up governance and fighting doping.

What is it I really want out of Eugene? I would love to start building a portfolio of US sponsors for the sport… If I’m being blunt, we’ve got to get into the LA’s, the Chicagos, the Miamis.

Seb Coe, President, World Athletics, in the Wall Street Journal

For all these big city ambitions, it could however be that good-on-TV, smaller cities and venues are the way forward for athletics, not just in the US but worldwide.

Eugene falls down on time zone, its West Coast location sitting eight or nine hours behind the sport’s bread-basket European audience. And it simply has to fill those Hayward Field seats so that those watching from home get the sense of a truly must-watch event. But the sport’s deep roots in the city, with Nike’s backing, bode well.

The La-Z-Boy audience will of course expect to hear the Star-Spangled Banner ringing out repeatedly on NBC for home gold medalists. The USA had a poor Tokyo Olympics by the nation’s usual standards. Yes, top of the athletics medal table, but with seven golds compared to 14 at Doha 2019. Whatever their individual nationalities, the World Athletics team will be quietly rooting for the stars and stripes so that American medals set the seal on these World Champs 2.0 . Can’t wait!

American star Sydney McLaughlin broke her own 400m hurdles record at the US championships in June

Hammer to fail?

Of the 48 events being contested at the Oregon22 World Athletics Championships, ten have seen new world records set since the start of the pandemic. ‘Super shoes’ have played their part, with records in men’s and women’s 5,000m, 10,000m and 400m hurdles. Some historic marks, though, remain stubbornly resistant to challenge in the modern era of anti-doping vigour.

You can peruse the record books and make your own judgments. A few weeks ago, the governing body in Jamaica called for Elaine Thompson-Herah’s 10.54-second 100m last August to be recognized as the world record in place of Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 10.49-second run back in 1988. Not going to happen. But don’t be surprised if this and other records tumble in Eugene over the next ten days. Would be great for the sport as stale records are a bad taste reminder of its dark underbelly.


Course Record

The 150th Open starts today at St Andrews, the home of the R&A which has announced a 22 per cent increase in the overall prize fund to US$14 million. The winner will take home US$2.5 million. Spare change compared to LIV riches, but difficult to see the leading players wanting away from this tournament in the foreseeable. You can’t put a price on a century and a half of tradition, just as a lack of ranking points hardly undermined this year’s Wimbledon. Did anyone miss Naomi Osaka who had no time for what she deemed an exhibition event?

Hard too to envisage the future below for British golf courses, whatever the cycle of popularity of the sport. The photos are of a solar farm in Japan with 260,000 panels on the site of one of the courses that have closed as interest in golf has waned. We just don’t have the weather for it, even with this weekend’s forecast heatwave.

Read about it here in an article from late last year.


Ed Warner chairs GB Wheelchair Rugby and Crystal Palace FC’s official charity, the Palace for Life Foundation. He chaired UK Athletics for a decade to 2017 as well as the London 2017 World Athletics Championships and World Para Athletics Championships. He writes on the business of sport at sportinc.substack.com.

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