Can the world championships turn Americans into athletics?


EUGENE, Ore. — Early Friday morning, as he walked to the pitching circle in the center of Hayward Field for his final warm-up pitches, Rudy Winkler heard a noise that hit him. Over his years at the stadium, Winkler had won an NCAA championship in the hammer throw, won a national title, and become an Olympian. But he had never heard that faint chant that serenaded him at the start of the world athletics championships: “USA! UNITED STATES!”

Fans at Hayward Field, the frequent home of America’s premier national track and field events, generally cheer for great performances and by college or club affiliation. For the first time, an American track and field crowd will cheer on American athletes on the biggest non-Olympic stage in sport.

“It’s really special,” Winkler said. “It’s here.”

The World Championships in Athletics have arrived on American soil for the first time, bringing together the fastest runners on the planet, the strongest throwers and the best drivers in a picturesque Pacific Northwest college town that is become the spiritual home of sports in America. During the opening ceremonies of the evening session, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff greeted the athletes and crowd on behalf of President Biden before a booming twin-jet flyover. Billboards around town shout the phrase: ‘Hello, World. Meet Oregon. Vernon Norwood, a member of the US 4×400 Mixed Relay Team, said he felt a little weird rushing on the Hayward track wearing a Team USA jersey – usually he comes here to win one.

What you need to know about the World Championships in Athletics

Ahead of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, has sought America as a host to bolster the sport’s appeal in a country where the excellence of athletes far outweighs their popularity with sports enthusiasts. Time will tell the success of this ‘mission’, as World Athletics chairman Sebastian Coe has called it. Over the next 10 days, American athletes will revel in a new opportunity.

“I guess it took a while to come,” said legendary American sprinter Allyson Felix. “I know we are really proud to welcome the world. We are so excited that you can all see what we saw and come to Hayward and experience the magic of Hayward. I know in my career I’ve always been a bit envious of that athlete in the home country, that applause. I’m really excited that all American athletes can get this experience.

Felix herself grabbed the opening night spotlight as she bid farewell to the sport she excelled and elevated in for nearly two decades, running her last race in the relay mixed 4×400. Félix rode a sparkling return leg, but the United States lost their lead about 10 yards from the line, taking third place behind the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands.

The Hayward Field crowd roared for Felix, an appreciation not of a race but of a career that saw her win 11 Olympic medals – including a bronze final in the 400m less than three years after a complicated birth that put his life in danger – and 13 world championships.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” Felix said Thursday. “I have really enjoyed my time over the years. There were a lot of ups and downs. I love this sport so much. It broke my heart several times. But I also had a lot of joyful moments. For me, the circle is completely closed. For me, being able to come here, finish at home is going to be very special. I will miss it so much, but I can’t think of a better way to go out than with a heart full of gratitude.

The presence of the world championships here amplifies the gap between America’s accomplishments in the sport and the attention it receives domestically. Americans have topped the track and field medal table at every Olympics since 1984. At the world championships, the United States has won more than double the medals of any other nation. It has more gold medals (170) than Kenya, second in the all-time medal table, has total medals (151).

That it took so long for the United States to host an event that has been contested since 1983 has puzzled the rest of the world. Thomas Mardal, a Norwegian hammer thrower who attended the University of Florida, paused when asked to compete at the first world championships in the United States. “Honestly, I didn’t know that,” Mardal said. “I’m surprised how important sport is here. I guess the track is not up to american football, baseball, basketball and all that.

Athletics is lagging behind in America. Last summer at the Olympics, Norwegian Karsten Warholm and American Rai Benjamin turned the 400-meter hurdles into one of the greatest confrontations in the history of athletics. Benjamin erased Warholm’s world record, but Warholm eclipsed it even more and beat Benjamin at the line. Warholm is one of Norway’s most famous people. Few American athletes are better at their sport than he is at his, but Benjamin could walk down any street in America without notice. Last summer, Benjamin guessed that his status as Warholm’s rival made him better known in Norway than in America.

Outcry as Kenyan sprinter nearly misses race over visa issue

“I hope that hosting events in the United States will attract new fans, that people will understand the sport and be attracted to it,” Felix said. “I hope the approaching Olympic Games in Los Angeles will bring in a new wave of fans. So really, we need to get out there and really keep the kids engaged and enjoying the sport. United is a way.

US track and field CEO Max Siegel said he hopes the world championships in Oregon will be a ‘catalyst’ to raise awareness in the US while launching a ‘glidepath’ to the Olympics in 2028, thus introducing a buzzword into the vernacular that sounds like a shot put technique. World Athletics and the USATF have formed a set of initiatives they call “Project America” ​​aimed at promoting the sport.

Track faces an obvious uphill battle against America’s obsession with basketball and soccer and even its more niche passion for sports like golf and tennis. Coe, however, finds hope in participation. Including cross country, more young athletes compete in track and field than any other sport. According to World Athletics accounts, 50 million Americans identify as recreational runners.

“The challenge is to form this really clear connection to what they’re doing — especially these recreational runners — and to believe that they’re part of this athletics landscape,” Coe said.

The sport’s power brokers are hoping the next 10 days will give them a boost. They may face the thorny question of whether Eugene was the right place in the United States.

In some ways, Eugene is a no-brainer. No other city would provide a more passionate and informed fanbase. Hayward Field — fresh out of a $270 million Nike-backed renovation in 2020 — is by far the largest and most opulent track stadium in the country. Athletic paraphernalia fills the walls of bars and restaurants. Eugene lives up to the Track Town moniker.

The location, however, keeps track of the fans the sport already has, locals and pilgrim die-hards. Eugene is “a bit isolated, in a corner,” said reigning world 100-meter champion Christian Coleman.

“I feel like athletics is huge in America,” Coleman said. “You have a lot of kids running track here and would love the opportunity to see us race in different places.”

Coe euphemistically called them the “more intimate” world championships. Despite all its dazzling components, Hayward Field has a capacity of 30,000, the smallest in the event’s history. Eugene, by population, the 154th largest city in America, is also the smallest host city, which poses logistical challenges. (Renting a car at Mahlon Sweet Field in Eugene may be added to the event schedule.)

“It’s a starting point,” Winkler said. “Beyond that, there is still a long way to go. Eugene unfortunately isn’t the easiest to travel to, so it’s not the most conducive for other people around [the country]. It’s a really special place. It’s amazing to have that. I wish it was a little more accessible for everyone. This is the only sticking point. »

A surprisingly low turnout at last month’s U.S. Championships has raised concerns that crowds won’t fill Hayward. Those concerns were allayed in Friday’s morning session, when fans roared for the preliminary heats in less than marquee events. What effect the world championships have on athletics in America remains to be seen. This promises, for the next 10 days, to provide a whole lot of thrills.

“It’s like Track Town just got bigger — more people, more viewers, more everything,” Winkler said. “But I’m glad he still has the same feeling for me at least. Really cool.

Comments are closed.