The 43rd edition of the Prefontaine Classic went down over the weekend at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Pre is purportedly the leading professional track meet in the United States, the only American stop of the year on the world track and field tour, what is now called the Diamond League.
Eugene, for those who have never been, is surrounded by foothills and forests — literally, forests — to the south, east and west. Thus this philosophical question: if a track meet happens in the forest but it barely makes a sound anywhere else, then — what?
Once again, ladies and gentlemen, the vexing question that is the state of track and field in the United States presents itself and, by extension, its corollary — how to grow the sport when some segment of its most passionate boosters believe its growth should be rooted in Oregon but it’s entirely unclear that being in Oregon does anything but deepen those Oregon roots, and so what?
This is, sorry to say, not just abstract philosophy.
These are the gut questions facing the sport.
Those track and field leaders who understand that the sport must move beyond a reliance on shoe companies — dead-on right. Those of its officials who can see that it has to stop being the largest of the “amateur” Olympic sports and start running, in every way, like the professional sport it truly is — also 100 percent right.
At the core of this, in the United States, is the Oregon question.
It was two years ago — in April 2015 — that track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF, surprisingly awarded Eugene the 2021 world championships, the first-ever IAAF worlds in the United States.
The 2021 worlds seemingly settled the Oregon matter.
If anything, however, Pre 2017 — in concert with the branding announced just last month around the 2021 worlds — has made the issue all the more pressing.
From the department of the obvious: Oregon is a long way away from anywhere.
From the April 14 news release issued by Eugene-based TrackTown USA, announcing international governing body approval thusly for the name of the 2021 event: “IAAF World Championships Oregon21.”
Continuing from the release:
“‘We pushed for the name to include Oregon21 because we are incredibly excited about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to showcase our entire state,’said Vin Lananna, president of the local organizing committee. ‘We look forward to working with our partners at the IAAF and USA Track & Field to deliver an exceptional event, one that reflects not only Oregon’s tremendous track and field heritage, but also its innovative business and industry, stunning natural beauty and warm and welcoming communities.’”
How does any of that matter in LA, New York, Chicago, Houston, Boston, Miami, Seattle and more — the markets beyond Oregon in which track and field must make inroads if it is to grow?
That, after all, is the entire point of the 2021 worlds. Not to reflect Oregon’s stunning beauty.
Typically, the Pre meet is an annual date on my calendar. This year, though, because of a scheduling conflict, I was out of the country — indeed, in Seoul, 16 time zones away.
For better or worse, instead of being wrapped up in the atmosphere in and around Pre, I took in the meet not only from a considerable distance but saw it, and the bigger picture, from a very different perspective.
July 2014: Hayward plays host to IAAF world junior championships.
November 2014: IAAF picks Doha for 2019 worlds over Eugene and Barcelona. Barcelona goes out in first round of voting. In round two Doha defeats Eugene, 15 votes to 12.
April 2015: without bidding, Eugene is awarded the 2021 worlds.
August 2015: IAAF worlds at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. American team finishes with 18 medals, fewest at a single worlds or Olympics since 2003.
March 2016: world indoor championships in Portland, two-and-a-half hour drive north from Eugene. Americans regain momentum with 23 medals, new record for any country at a single world indoors, breaking record set by U.S. in 1999, 19.
June-July 2016: U.S. Olympic Trials, at Hayward.
August 2016: Olympics, Rio, U.S. track and field team wins 32 medals, most in non-boycotted Olympic Games since 1932, when Americans won 35. American women win 16, tying boycotted 1984 Games.
If ever the stage was set for track and field to build on all that 2016 momentum, to start capturing the imagination — it would be starting with the 2017 Pre, right?
Building toward those 2021 worlds at a renovated Hayward, one-third of the way through the six-year run-up from the 2015 IAAF announcement to the 2021 show itself …
No NBA playoffs to steal the spotlight. No French Open. No nothing, really, except for the daily grind of baseball.
A crowd announced at 12,312 shows up at Hayward on a bright sunny Saturday.
The meet draws excellent coverage in the local Eugene paper, the Register-Guard. It gets to-be-expected stories in the running press. It attracts a story or two from reporters who for years have covered track and field, the likes of the Orange County Register.
Outlets that drive the national or international agenda?
That would spotlight track and field (in particular after the U.S. team’s outstanding performance last year) with an eye toward 2021?
The New York Times? CNN? Washington Post? ESPN.com?
Late Saturday night Pacific time: no Pre news of any sort to be found on any of their websites.
OK, the Post did have a running story — about a kooky idea to stage a marathon inside Boston’s Fenway Park. The ESPN site offered a feature on poker.
So where is the disconnect? Where is the push from the TrackTown people, invested in the Oregon brand? From the local promoters, the Oregon Track Club?
Which is also, big picture, part of the problem. Consider all the entities who want to be, or think they are, involved in track and field in the United States. Here is some business advice from Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, talking in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek about one of his early forays into sports, the Boston Lobsters of the World Team Tennis league in the 1970s:
“So I learned two things. You have to control your venue. And you have to have a star … But the other thing I learned if you’re in a partnership: you’re only as good as your weakest partner.”
It’s not, by the way, that there weren’t stars at Pre. Or that they didn’t shine.
Just to pick three:
Christian Taylor, pushed by fellow American Will Claye, threw down the third-best triple jump in track and field history. Taylor is the 2012 and 2016 Olympic triple jump gold medalist.
Tori Bowie — gold, silver and bronze in Rio — won a women’s 200 that, for the first time in track and field history, saw three athletes go sub-22 outside a major championship meet.
On Friday night, a Kenyan teenager, Celliphine Chespol, ran the second-fastest women's 3000-meter steeplechase in track and field history. This even though she lost her shoe and stopped to put it back on.
Any one of those stories: tremendous.
But they tend to get lost in the clutter — because, and this is a forever problem, there’s so much (i.e., too much) going on at Pre, like there is at any track and field meet. This is a presentation problem, a marketing problem and a capitalizing-on-your-stars problem.
Beyond which, the sport cannibalizes itself.
The very same weekend that the pros were in Eugene, the two qualifying meets for the NCAA championship were also run, one in Lexington, Kentucky, the other in Austin, Texas. The NCAA championship is due to be held June 7-10 at, where else, Hayward.
This is a classic: does the left hand talk to the right?
Do you see the Rose Bowl football game get scheduled for the same day as the NFC or AFC playoffs? Of course not. Why not? It’s patently obvious. What is not obvious is why the same situation does not hold in track and field.
Here is where we have to segue to, and confront, a very difficult question.
Pre is indeed the only U.S. stop on the Diamond League circuit. But is it legitimately all that meaningful?
Let’s ask the athletes.
Bowie, to reporters after winning that Pre 200:
"My coach and my manager made sure they clarified that this was all to prepare for the nationals,” in June, the qualifier for the world championships in August in London, “so I was like, 'OK, it's just practice then.' I executed my plan and it went well."
It’s just practice?
In what other sport is the only stop on the world tour in your own country just, you know, a warm-up for the nationals a month later?
Seriously — if Pre is the track and field version of an early March Cactus League spring-training exhibition baseball game between the Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres, tick off one good reason why anyone outside the 541 area code ought to be inclined to pay the slightest attention?
The mainstream media delivered the emphatic verdict Saturday night. Did anyone care?
This is a vicious circle — an awful equation — that won’t grow the sport.
There’s a lot that has to change with track and field. A lot of mindsets in a lot of ways over a lot of things.
Otherwise, you might as well keep holding meets up there amid the forest folk.