MONACO — The U.S. team has long been No. 1 in the world in track and field.
Hosting the world in track and field? Not so much. The U.S. has not played host to a major championship since 1992, in Boston. Before that, Indianapolis staged the world indoor championships, in 1987. Of course, Atlanta and Los Angeles put on the Summer Olympic Games. That was 1996. And 1984.
To say that this has been a recurring sore spot with track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, would be putting it mildly. When, oh when, would the United States — and, more particularly, USA Track & Field — ever step up?
On Friday, Portland, Oregon, won the right to stage the 2016 world indoor championships, USATF president Stephanie Hightower asserting that under the direction of federation chief executive Max Siegel and in concert with TrackTown USA president Vin Lananna there is energy and synergy to “rebuild the brand of track and field in the United States.”
The IAAF Council awarded Portland the 2016 event amid a spirited campaign that also saw it give Birmingham, England, the 2018 world indoors.
The UK is now lined up to stage the 2014 Commonwealth Games (in Glasgow), the 2016 world half-marathon championships (Cardiff, also awarded Friday), the 2017 world track and field outdoor championships (London, at the same stadium that staged the 2012 Games) and, now, the 2018 world indoors.
Talk about legacy from the 2012 Olympics.
The 2014 world indoors will be staged March 7-9 in Sopot, Poland.
Birmingham had staged the 2003 world indoors, IAAF president Lamine Diack at the time calling them the best-ever, and but for the fact of an American bid would probably have won going away for 2016.
“This is a sport that needs to nurture its roots in the United States,” UK Athletics chief Ed Warner acknowledged Friday after all the political horse-trading was said and done.
The IAAF’s “World Athletic Series,” which includes its major championships, is sponsored by adidas; the current deal goes through 2019. It sometimes can seem as though everything sports-related in the state of Oregon is underwritten by Nike. How the two will mesh come 2016 remains uncertain.
Warner also said, “I feel as though Christmas has come early for British athletics.”
For Portland and USA Track and Field, as well.
Teen middle-distance sensation Mary Cain announced here Friday that she would be forgoing college and turning pro, and would be based in, where else, Portland, with coach Alberto Salazar, and the Oregon Project, with stars such as Olympic medal-winners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. Her plan, she said: “To throw myself into insanely fast races and have no pressure.”
The Portland 2016 plan:
A three-day meet in March 2016, tentatively March 18-20, the week after the NCAA indoor championships, at the Oregon Convention Center, with seating, Lananna said, for “8,400-plus.”
A new 200-meter track will be built and then, as a legacy of the event, repurposed for use — somewhere. It will be the only indoor track in the track-crazy state of Oregon, Lananna noted.
TrackTown USA served as the organizers for the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at venerable Hayward Field in Eugene, on the University of Oregon campus. It will also serve as the local organizing committee for next year’s IAAF world junior championships, also in Eugene.
The 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials will be back in Eugene, based at Hayward.
All this begs the obvious:
It’s fine, maybe even great, that TrackTown has lit a — or, maybe more accurately, capitalized on the — spark in Oregon. There’s a lot of Nike money behind all this, in Oregon. At the same time, Oregon is a long way away from pretty much everywhere else. Anyone who has ever been to Eugene knows it is hard to get to. And almost no one who gets drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers ever goes, wow, that was my first choice.
When was the last time you ever heard any of your European, Asian or African friends say, gee, you know, I want to vacation in the United States and I think I’m going to go to — Portland? San Francisco, absolutely. New York, definitely. Disneyland, for sure. Portland? Get real.
Look, there are a lot of reasons to like Portland. Excellent coffee. Fine wine. Lewis and Clark. But it is not a major market, and to argue otherwise strains credulity.
If, as Hightower asserted, track and field is truly to be re-branded in the entire United States, it needs to think about a strategy that gets people where it’s at in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, the Bay Area, Boston, DC, Detroit, Seattle, Phoenix, Tampa, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver and on and on.
Asked about that, Siegel said “television properties” were in the works without offering more specifics. Lananna volunteered the example of the MLS Portland Timbers soccer team, saying that a few years ago it was nothing and now it draws “rabid” crowds in a “crazy environment,” adding, “We hope to do the same … we feel very confident we will be able to do take those same steps forward.”
Those would be giant steps, indeed, off a three-day track meet in an indoor convention center in Portland, which — let’s not forget — will be staged amid the hoopla of NCAA basketball March Madness.
It’s worth noting something else. Cain said Friday that when she was younger she was a swimmer and idolized Michael Phelps. Phelps, by putting himself back in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testing pool, has taken his first steps toward being back in the water in Rio in 2016. Don’t kid yourself. This, in the sphere of Olympic marketing, is what USATF is likely up against in 2016, too.
Still, give USATF and TrackTown USA credit. This is its first step, a welcome step in bringing world-class international track and field back to the United States after more than two decades. It’s Portland, sure, but you have to start someplace, and that someplace has to be where you know it’s going to work.