Shocking (not): back to Eugene for the 2020 track Trials

The new Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, is a track and field-specific venue. Cost of the rebuild: a reported $200 million.

Without the U.S. Olympic track and field Trials in 2020, and then the world track and field championships in 2021, what would you would have in the new Hayward?

A complete albatross.

So — lack of surprise — USA Track & FIeld on Thursday announced the Trials are heading back to Eugene in 2020.

 Rendering of the new Hayward Field, now under construction // University of Oregon

Rendering of the new Hayward Field, now under construction // University of Oregon

“Shocking — another track and field thing in Eugene,” my 19-year-old daughter, said upon inquiring this column was about.

Later, she added, referring to the Trials, “Isn’t that where they always are? Why did they have to announce it?”

USATF had announced in June 2017 that Mt. SAC, in the Los Angeles area, would stage the 2020 Trials. On May 2, the federation said bidding was reopened amid litigation complicating construction of a new Mt. SAC stadium.

Mt. SAC had beaten Sacramento, which put on the 2000 and 2004 Trials, and Eugene. 

In this second round of 2020 bidding, the other candidates were Sacramento and Austin, Texas. New Hayward is supposed to be finished by April 2020. The Trials are due to run June 19-28. The Tokyo Games begin the next month.

What an incredible coincidence that Vin Lananna, who until two weeks ago had been president of TrackTown USA, the local organizing committee, resigned — and, after the process had remained stagnant for two-plus months, within a matter of days Eugene got 2020.

Lananna was said to retain his role as associate athletic director at the University of Oregon.

Again — incredible that coincidence, if you believe in coincidences.

There’s indisputably a common-sense argument that a 2020 Trials would serve as something as a shakedown run for a new stadium in anticipation of the 2021 worlds — what works, what needs to be fixed, all that. There’s also no getting around the alignment of public and private interests in Oregon with considerable skin in the new Hayward game.

For all that, the dilemma with Eugene — in general and specifically for 2020 — is, as David Byrne put it, same as it ever was. 

How do you grow the sport when the sport is isolated in a remote college town? When that isolation threatens to turn track and field into — well, a cult?

Track and field should only hope that it could be a cult like the Talking Heads. At least in the United States, you can hear David Byrne on the radio each and every day. 

In Europe, the sport sees meets each year in the likes of world capitals: Rome, Oslo, Stockholm, Paris, Monaco, London, Zurich and Brussels.

There’s a stop, too, in Shanghai, one of the world's great cities. 

In the United States, it’s — Eugene.

Let’s play Sesame Street: which of those is not like the others?

For public consumption, all involved who are not Eugene- or Oregon-based have to put on a smiley face and say that they’re delighted to go to Eugene and blah blah blah grow the sport blah blah blah.  

Uh-huh.

Ask the casual American to name two track stars. Almost without fail, the answer — if two can even be summoned — will be Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson.

Neither has run a race in years.

At last summer’s world championships in London, Justin Gatlin beat Usain Bolt in the 100 meters. 

Ashton Eaton is a two-time Olympic champion in the decathlon, and he’s an Oregon guy. In Rio two summers ago, Matthew Centrowitz won the men’s 1500, the first gold for the United States in that event since 1908; he has long had Oregon ties. Galen Rupp, another Oregon guy, won silver in the men’s 10k in London in 2012, the first U.S. medal in that event since Billy Mills in 1964; Rupp won bronze in Rio in the marathon. 

Then there’s Allyson Felix. She has nine Olympic medals, six gold, and 16 world championship medals, 11 gold. 

These athletes have been at the peak of their careers during the Eugene years. 

So: how has having the sport locked and loaded in Eugene grown the sport across and around the United States?

It’s a minor miracle if track and field makes the highlight shows such as ESPN’s SportsCenter. The real-life talking heads such as Fox’s Colin Cowherd go on endlessly about LeBron James and, oh, NFL training camps are starting up anew.

Did news of the Trials to Eugene for 2020 stir social media? A full 12 hours after the announcement went public, the TrackTown Twitter posting had generated all of 33 retweets and 111 likes.

For nitpickers, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Twitter post about the 2020 Trials had generated 372 retweets and 1.5k likes. 

There was, however, this observation from the American sprinter Muna Lee, fifth in the Beijing 2008 women’s 100, seventh in the Athens 2004 200, who went through Hayward to qualify for both those Games:

It’s not just that Eugene is boring. It’s hard to get to. No major media outlets are based there, or anywhere near. As far as a TV market, Eugene is on par with Fargo and Peoria. Who wants to argue that track and field ought to be grown out of Fargo or Peoria? 

Eugene and Oregon are worlds unto themselves, and the people there like it that way. Which is great if you’re moving there for quality of life reasons, to take up boring amid the beautiful Northwest scenery — especially from, say, California to get away from California. 

Boring, however, belies the question — track and field as a professional endeavor. If track and field is to compete with the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, it has to get out of Eugene. 

Apples to apples: what’s in Eugene? The Eugene Emeralds, the Class A short-season affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

Class A is not the major leagues, and therein lies the disconnect. This is so unbelievably obvious.

For the record, and to reiterate: the Prefontaine Classic, the one — say again, one — recurring meet each year on the IAAF circuit is at Hayward. When all is said and done, this — plus Pre — will have been Eugene’s bid to grow track and field:

2008: Trials

2012: Trials

2014: IAAF world junior championships

2016: Trials

2020: Trials

2021: IAAF world championships

The IAAF 2016 world indoor championships should be added to this mix, too. They were in Portland; TrackTown ran the event.

So should the NCAA championships. They have been at Hayward for the last six years, 2013-18. They will be back at new Hayward in 2021 and 2022. 

Back to the darling daughter. She turned 9 in the spring of 2008, just before the first of the series of Trials. In 2021, when Eugene is due to stage the world championships, she will have just graduated from college.

Barring the unforeseeable slip-up between now and senior year, that's what she will have accomplished over those years.

What about track and field? 

When this run is over, Eugene will have itself a new track and field-specific stadium. But what else? Seriously, what is there to show around the United States after all these events while we consider, big shock, that we’re going back to Eugene for another track and field thing.