A SoCal-style, must-see Trials: Trackchella!

All along, the good people in Eugene, Oregon, have said that the dream has been to grow the sport of track and field in the United States of America. Follow the logic. That means: Eugene as the base but, you know, get it out of Eugene.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field made it emphatic: dreams can come true.

The 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in track and field will be in Los Angeles, at Mt. San Antonio College, the USOC and USATF announced.

With the meet in LA comes the opportunity — the news release noted the LA media market, No. 2 in the United States — for the track and field Trials, finally, to become more than just a date on a calendar for a sport struggling for miniscule television ratings. It can, and should, become an event. A destination. A happening. The kind of thing young people wouldn’t dare miss.

Trackchella!

At the outset — it should be clear this is about Mt. SAC winning, not Eugene losing, because that is unequivocally the case, the USATF board voting for Mt. SAC by 11-2.

In that release, USATF board chair Steve Miller said, “The board, and especially our active athletes, were clear in their desire to take the Olympic Trials back to Los Angeles,” which is in the running for the 2024 — or perhaps 2028 — Summer Games.

A 2004 view of Hilmer Lodge stadium at Mt. SAC // Getty Images

The 2021 IAAF world championships are due to be staged in Eugene. They would be the first-ever worlds in the United States. On Wednesday, the BBC reported the FBI and the IRS are investigating the IAAF’s award of those 2021 championships. In 2015, without a bidding process, Eugene unexpectedly was awarded 2021.

French authorities have for months been inquiring into the dealings of Lamine Diack, the former president of track’s international governing body, the IAAF, and his son, Papa Massata Diack.

The BBC story does not cite a source. Eugene officials, including Eugene-based TrackTown USA president Vin Lananna, have consistently maintained the 2021 award was above-board.

The 2016, 2012 and 2008 Trials were in Eugene, at venerable Hayward Field. The 2014 IAAF world juniors were at Hayward. The NCAA track and field championships have been held at Hayward since 2013 and are due to keep going back there through 2021. Hayward is due for a major renovation timed to the 2021 worlds.

At a USATF board meeting Sunday amid the national championships, three bids came forward for the 2020 Trials: Eugene, Sacramento and Mt. SAC.

The casual observer might think Eugene. Right?

The long history of the sport in Oregon, the proud fan support there — these and other factors have over the years justifiably played a key role in the sport turning time and again to Eugene.

At the same time, Eugene is a long way from anywhere. It’s no one’s major media market. And there’s a fatigue factor in returning time and again to the same venue.

The sequence of Sunday’s board meeting should also be noted.

In turn, the three contenders presented. Lananna recused himself from the presentations. Last December, he was also elected USATF board president; further, he is associate athletic director at the University of Oregon. After the three presentations, Lananna came back to the room. The board then took up a separate item; it led to a spirited discussion about Lananna’s various roles. The board then went into closed session for the 2020 vote.

The public board discussion did not — for emphasis, did not — touch on the 2021 award.

Did Lananna’a close and well-known association with Eugene play any role in the 2020 vote? It’s a question without an answer.

The only hint might — emphasis, might — come from the news release that TrackTown issued after Mt. SAC had been announced the winner. Under the name of TrackTown CEO Mike Reilly, not Lananna, it offered congratulations to Mt. SAC while saying “we look forward to future opportunities to partner with USA Track & Field in showcasing the sport we love.”

Lananna did not respond to a request Wednesday for comment. He told the Oregonian he had “no knowledge” of any FBI or IRS investigation.

On USATF’s part, the release noted the “continuation of an effort” by the federation to “diversify the locations of its championship meets”: Eugene, of course (2012, 2016), Des Moines (2013), Sacramento (2014, 2017); the world indoor championships in Portland, Oregon (2016); USA indoors in recent years in Boston and Albuquerque.

Sacramento staged the Trials in 2000 and 2004. The championships this past weekend were fine — the weather was blazing hot, which didn’t help — but fine without more is not what track and field needs.

It needs to step up to the next level.

Enter Mt. SAC.

It belabors the obvious to note that LA has airports, hotels, restaurants, all that. It also is in the midst of a taxpayer-approved public transit mega-building boom.

Hilmer Lodge Stadium at Mt. SAC is itself undergoing renovation — an $82 million project that’s part of a $320 million bond that voters approved in 2008. The stadium, built in 1947, was last remodeled in 1959. This remodel will finish in 2019.

A key is that the college president, Bill Scroggins, is not just on board but gets it, and in various ways.

To begin, he gets the import of track and field as a marquee event.

Scroggins spent three days at the 2016 Trials in Eugene. He and Doug Todd, the longtime Mt. SAC track and cross-country director, conferred. The plans did not call for a shade cover in the stands. Now there will be such a cover on the west side of the facility.

Elementally, Scroggins gets what track and field can do for a community and beyond. In an interview he did while in Eugene, he said:

“This is a sport that depends on today’s modern media being able to cover it, cover it effectively to connect to an audience that can relate to the sport. And that’s one thing about track and field that’s different than, say, the NFL. I can’t go out there and put a community 11-member football team together. But I can join my local running club. I can go out there and compete in some of the events that are Olympic scale.

“So the population can relate to track more so than any other time. This is an important time for youth athletics because of the issues with health, with the ability to provide an opportunity to support an active lifestyle, healthy living — and more than any other sport, track and field conveys that message.”

In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Scroggins said, referring to the 1932 and 1984 LA Games: “I remember the Olympics being here twice and the great things it did for our community. A lot of it was listening to people like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, people who are even today well-known personalities.

“Part of that is having a site here [at Mt. SAC] that is accessible and celebrating the sport itself. Track is a competition that takes a few seconds. But the experience lasts a lifetime.”

There — that is the key.

What track and field is missing is the experience.

In far too many ways, the production values of a meet would be all too familiar to someone who walked into Hilmer Lodge Stadium in 1968 — when it served as the site for the Olympic Trials for women.

No sport can be so stagnant. The NBA experience is hardly the same as it was in 1968. The first Super Bowl was 1967 — compare that Kansas City-Green Bay game, and the NFL’s hold on the American imagination then, to now and the New England-Atlanta game this past winter.

This is where the 2020 Trials can break ground.

For all its virtues, what Eugene and Hayward Field are missing in particular is elemental: space. With space comes imagination. And creativity.

Recent editions of the Trials have seen the area behind Hayward, normally a multi-use athletic field, jammed with exhibits, food stands and a soundstage.

At Mt. SAC, there is space. And then more space. And still more. And still more, for parking.

Which leads to the obvious question when seeking to spark imagination and creative thinking:

In our world, what are the two universal languages?

Sport and music.

What are the music festivals that each spring draw thousands of young people to Southern California to have, you know, fun? The thing that track could use more of?

Coachella and Stagecoach. (For those of you who remember, like, Woodstock or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, there’s Oldchella as well, but whatever.)

This is a no-brainer: combine a Coachella-like music festival over the 10-day run of the Trials — June 19-28, 2020. Draw the young people in with the music and get them to experience the thrill of track and field as well, augmented by whatever realities are in play by 2020.

It’s not like, in different but similar venues, some version of this music/sports combo isn’t already happening. Go to the August 4 San Diego-Pittsburgh baseball game and after suffering through that (hopefully no extra innings), you can hear the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Chicago. 25 or 6 to 4, people!

What would make the 2020 Trials different from a nine-inning baseball outing, of course, is that this would be a 10-day festival.

As Todd, in an interview Thursday, said of the 2020 Trials, “It’s got to be more of a happening. A festival experience. It has to be more than just sitting in the bleachers and looking at a race every 15 minutes.

“The races are great. But you want something else.”

Just thinking out loud here: USATF chief executive Max Siegel has an extensive background in the music business.

Scroggins, for one, is open to just this sort of possibility: “We are looking at this as an opportunity to be prepared for not only what is the broadcast that is associated with the Trials but having a lot of other visibility to the site, the event and the sport.”

He added, “Marketing isn’t just what happens on the field [of play].”

A big-time music festival and Olympic track and field Trials combo? Why not?

“Let’s get everybody talking,” Todd said. “That’s the key.”

He also said, “We have an hour or two to relax and enjoy [winning]. Then we have to go to work.”

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One thought on “A SoCal-style, must-see Trials: Trackchella!

  1. Ok, I wish Mt. SAC well, but there’s this from the Orange County Register (http://www.pe.com/2017/06/28/mt-sac-awarded-2020-usa-olympic-track-field-trials/):

    “Southern California has been a hard sell for track and field,” said Dwight Stones, the longtime TV analyst and former world record holder in the high jump who lives in Orange County. “I don’t know why that is because there’s so much world-class talent that comes from Southern California. But if you’re asking me if this is going to energize (the Los Angeles-Orange County market) on track and field, I think the answer is no.”

    In recent years an Adidas-sponsored meet at StubHub Center in Carson struggled to draw fans despite world-class fields.

    “It couldn’t draw flies,” Stones said.

    The meet was moved to New York, where it continued to struggle and eventually folded.

    LA & NY both failed before, but hey MLATGA (make LA track great again)! Who wouldn’t believe that?!!

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