For more than 30 years, the United States has consistently produced the world’s best track and field teams. But the track and field world championships have never been held in the United States. Then, Thursday morning, in an unexpected bolt from the blue, came word that the 2021 world championships would be held in Eugene, Oregon — a “strategic decision that enables us to take advantage of a unique opportunity that may never arise again,” the outgoing president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, said in a statement issued from meetings in Beijing.
Eugene had last November bid for the 2019 world championships and lost narrowly to Doha, Qatar, 15-12.
Typically, the IAAF awards the worlds after such contested elections. For 2021, however, it opted to go straight to Eugene — its 27-member ruling council, guided by Diack, who throughout his 16 years as president has always wanted a U.S. championships, taking the decision Thursday in a special vote.
If anything can ignite a resurgence of track and field’s place in the sporting landscape in the United States, this marks the opportunity.
The sport — under the direction of USATF chief executive Max Siegel, now financially secure in the United States— has six full years and two Olympic Games, in 2016 and 2020, to capture public attention, not to mention the 2016 world indoor championships in Portland, Oregon.
The long-running and very vocal argument over whether a different (read: bigger) city would work as America’s track and field capital is now settled.
It’s going to be Eugene — as the backdrop for a world-class, live (or mostly) TV broadcast.
For sure, the locals know track and field.
The annual Prefontaine Classic at historic Hayward Field is a regular stop on the IAAF’s world circuit.
The NCAA championships are held regularly at Hayward.
Eugene played host last year to the world junior championships.
The U.S. Olympic Trials in track and field were held at Hayward in 2008, 2012 and will be held there again in 2016. The 2016 Trials will be the sixth in University of Oregon history.
Hayward needs a facelift. But that’s now part of the 2021 plan.
That Eugene could grab the 2021 worlds is testament, in large measure, to the vision and tenacity of five people: Vin Lananna, who championed the 2019 bid and would not give up; Bob Fasulo, his consultant and former U.S. Olympic Committee international relations director; Siegel; Diack; and Seb Coe, the IAAF vice president.
Coe headed the 2019 evaluation process and throughout played it studiously neutral. Even so, from the beginning he understood -- anyone would -- the power of having a championships in the United States.
In a phone call from Beijing, he said of Thursday's vote, "This was a strategic opportunity that the council could not overlook.
"We have to be entirely open about this: we have found it difficult to engage the United States at this level of track and field.
"The federation," meaning USATF, "under Stephanie and Max, have really reached out," a reference not only to Siegel but to Stephanie Hightower, who until this week had been the USATF board chairwoman. She resigned, remaining USATF president, and in August will stand as USATF’s nominee for election to the IAAF council.
Coe continued, "We have a world indoors in Portland. We had a very well-organized world junior championships in Eugene. As I said to Stephanie, interestingly, when they were presenting their credentials for world juniors, I said, 'I hope this was a precursor for worlds,' and they said, 'Yes,' and they were back in front of us.
"The council made the right decision. This was not an opportunity that was not going to come around that quickly. Remember, this was only by three votes last time."
Diack is an often-misunderstood figure in the track and field — and Olympic — scene. But Thursday’s decision should serve once more of a reminder of the authority he wields.
Diack has only a few more months to go in his term; either Coe or Sergey Bubka, also an IAAF vice president, will replace him at elections in August. Diack is 81 years old. Even so, Diack managed Thursday to do what Primo Nebiolo, who was his predecessor as IAAF president and who was as fearsome as they come, could not — get a championships to the United States.
And he did so without a bidding process. And without a peep of protest.
There is, to be clear, precedent for no-bidding — the 2007 worlds went to Osaka, Japan, in a similar manner.
“Although this decision departs from the usual procedure," Diack said, "I am delighted that my council colleagues understood the enormous opportunity presented to us to access a key market and have taken a decision in the interest of the global development of our sport.”
For the Americans, after the bitter disappointment of losing to Doha — and for sure it was bitter, with the U.S. contingent in Monaco last November calculating on hotel napkins, trying time and again to figure out how they could have lost by such a close margin — Lananna and Siegel vowed not to give up.
Siegel said Thursday by telephone from Indianapolis, “As a federation, frankly, since I took over,” in 2012, “we have been very deliberate in approaching the sport globally in the same way Scott and Larry have gone about it,” referring to Scott Blackmun and Larry Probst, the chief executive and board chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who for years have made a priority of building goodwill and relationships.
“We want to make a statement,” Siegel continued,” that we want to be one of the highest-contributing federations.”
Lananna went back to Monaco the first week of February. There he pitched Diack with what he called a “strategic business plan” — essentially, he said, the same terms and commitments for 2019 but now for 2021.
The state of Oregon, he made sure to note, has all along offered “enthusiastic” support.
Speaking Thursday by phone from Beijing, Lananna said the council voted for the plan by a “landslide” vote.
“We stayed after it,” he said. “I will say that in the end, what I will say about the IAAF, they thought strategically about this and made a bold move. The president did a wonderful job about getting behind this.”
In Monaco last November, Lananna had told the IAAF, “Destiny is calling us. America is waiting. Eugene is ready. Let’s tell our story together.”
Now that destiny is to be fulfilled. Just two years later.
“I mean,” he said on the telephone, “it’s going to reignite America’s passion for track and field. I think you put this in Eugene, Oregon, a town that has the heart and soul of track and field in the United States — the repercussions of this decision will signal a new era for the sport.
“For the IAAF, it’s a new market for the sport of track and field. It ignited the flame that gets our sport rolling in the right direction.”
But not, he cautioned without significant work.
“It’s not good enough to tell each other we have the world’s No. 1 team. We have to work to do — to have them be compelling human interest stories.”