Sonia O’Sullivan: World Championships are coming to TrackTown USA - but will Americans appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime event?

There are likely to be lots of empty seats despite Eugene, Oregon, having a rich history in athletics

The World Athletics Championships come to Eugene, Oregon, in just over three weeks’ time. It’s going to be the first time the championships will be staged in the United States and the funny thing is that even though you associate everything American with being big and brash, this is really going to feel like they are being held in a small town.

Eugene is in the Pacific northwest region of the US, with a population of just more than 170,000. It is nestled among the fir trees on the banks of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers and if you ever come here, it’s easy to see why the city is also known as both the Emerald city and, affectionately in sporting circles, as TrackTown USA.

This is the original home of Nike. And now the University of Oregon and the newly-renovated Hayward Field takes centre-stage. Most elite athletes will at some stage in their career get to compete on the hallowed ground of Hayward Field, and the place has a certain magic attached to it.

It dates back to the days of Steve Prefontaine, the iconic front-running distance runner who filled the stands in his college days at the University of Oregon. With his distinctive flowing locks, moustache and aggressive running style, Prefontaine had a bit of a cult following in the early 1970s and he went on to finish fourth at the Munich Olympic Games. His mystique lives on to this day following his tragic car crash in 1975 when he died aged just 24.


The town of Eugene is steeped in the memory of Prefontaine and this will be evident to all that come to visit and attend the World Championships. Pre’s Trail is a flat 6.9km loop on the famous mulched wood chips, which is not to everyone’s liking but is so well known that everyone comes in search of it and gives it a go.

The soft, spongy wood chips are often topped up when an event is taking place – it looks and smells amazing but the sponginess of the trail can take more energy than it gives back, so probably not the best place to run in the days leading up to a race. There is no shortage of trails throughout Eugene, but Pre’s Trail is the big attraction here.

Another well-worn path is up the hill to Pre’s Rock, the exact spot where Prefontaine lost control of his car on the way home back in 1975 after celebrating a win at Hayward Field. His legendary status has evolved over the years and now athletes from all over the US come to pay their respects, often leaving shoes, shirts, flowers, medals or just little notes as a token of their visit. All in the hope of touching a piece of the spirit of Pre.

Hayward Field itself is named after Bill Hayward, who was a track coach at the University of Oregon for 44 years. It was purposely built to only host track and field events where the crowd has a clear view of every live event from every seat. Those seats are the most comfortable you will ever hope to find in an outdoor stadium – green and yellow to reflect the University of Oregon colours, soft-cushioned with plenty of leg room.

Apart from the hammer, all the field events are contained inside the track so the seats on the lowest level are practically on the track. It is an imposing stadium with a roof that looks a little like the one in the Aviva Stadium, just not quite covering all the seats which can be a problem when there are so many days of rain in Eugene each year. As far as stadiums go, it is intimate and easy to get around.

This whole place has a small-town feel to it. There can’t be many World Championships venues down the years that were hosting high school and college athletes all through the run-up. Hayward Field never goes a weekend without a track meet and this hasn’t changed just because the World Championships are coming to town. Just three weeks ago, the Prefontaine Classic attracted athletes from all over the world to come and test out the track and get familiar with the surroundings.

Because it is such a community venue, it’s difficult to imagine what it will be like when the best athletes in the world arrive next month. What will the atmosphere be like? If it was packed to capacity, the place would be buzzing. But in my experience here, that’s quite a big “if”.

In all the times I have visited the stadium in the past 12 months, it has never been close to full capacity. I do worry about a lack of atmosphere and energy if the seats are not filled during the championships. The athletes will do their bit and the track is as fast as it gets. But I wouldn’t be so sure that there will be massive crowds at many of the sessions.

That’s the one drawback of such a small town hosting the event. Even though Eugene is a place where athletics is part of the fabric, you can still buy tickets for most sessions quite easily. Ticket cost is a factor, as is the price of the limited number of hotel rooms available for people coming in from out of town.

The US is not like Europe when it comes to athletics. There won’t be people flying in from far and wide to go along to watch the event. Even the word “athletics” confuses the locals – they say “track and field”.

I get the impression sometimes that as a country, they cling far more closely to the legends of years gone by. It’s definitely the case that the current stars of the sport haven’t connected with the US public enough to attract them to attend the championships. There is no sense out there that people really understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The American sporting public just don’t see it that way.

Which is a shame because it’s a special place. It’s a beautiful stadium that fans of the sport will feel instantly at home in. Even when you walk around the concourse at the back of the stadium, the surface is track, meaning the fans get to save their feet while walking around to get to their seats. When you take a trip to the bathroom there are athlete bib numbers, Olympic medals, pictures sealed into the tiles – everywhere you look there is a reminder of the rich track and field history in the US. A niche market maybe, but those who know their track stars will see connections littered all over the stadium.

I just wonder if the current athletes and fans can truly appreciate what’s gone before and what’s taking place in front of their eyes. There’s no doubt that records will be broken during these championships and that the competition will be intense. It will be a shame if that is all lost on the vast majority of sports fans in one of the great sporting nations on the planet.

You just have to hope that Americans realise this is a rare opportunity to be a part of history in their own backyard. For all the cost involved, there are priceless memories on offer here.