Glenn Cunningham

Eugene: track ghetto or capital?

Eugene, Oregon, is a beautiful little town. It has many virtues. The issue at hand is whether it ought to be the track and field ghetto of the entire United States. A more charitable way to put it, of course, would be to call it the track and field capital of the United States.

Decathlon champion Ashton Eaton practices earlier this year at venerable Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon // photo Getty Images

Because after the announcement this week that the NCAA Division I outdoor track championships from 2015 through 2021 will be held at venerable Hayward Field, there's little doubt that Hayward, and Eugene, and for that matter, Oregon, are poised to be -- if not flat-out are -- at the epicenter of the track and field scene in the United States for essentially the next decade.

Query: is that a good thing?

Hayward staged the 2013 NCAAs. It will play host to the meet next year. Going through 2021 will make it nine straight.

Each year in late May or early June, Hayward puts on a Diamond League meet, the Prefontaine Classic. In 2014, Hayward will be the site of the world junior championships; in 2015, the USA nationals; and in 2016 -- just as in 2012 and 2008 -- the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Meanwhile, Portland -- just up the road -- recently won the right to put on the 2016 world indoor championships.

In Portland, the Oregon Project, with coach Alberto Salazar, is home to some of the world's leading runners, including Mo Farah, Galen Rupp and, now, American teen sensation Mary Cain. Olympic and world decathlon champion Ashton Eaton and Nick Symmonds, silver medalist in the 800 meters at the 2013 Moscow world championships, headline the list of athletes who in recent years have come out of Eugene.

Depending how you see it, this week's NCAA announcement is either brilliant or yet another turn in a disturbing trend to further niche-ify track and field -- to consign the sport to a distant corner of America, to a remote college town in the late-night Pacific time zone where the sport is destined to get noticed every so often, if then.

It must be noted, of course, that track and field in Oregon revolves around Nike. Without Nike there is virtually nothing.

In its elation over the 2021 thing, the University of Oregon put out a news release that maybe was just a little bit over the top. It quoted athletic director Rob Mullens as saying, "Being the birthplace of running in the United States, Track Town USA offers the most unique experiences for both student-athletes and fans alike."

When the biographies of Jesse Owens, Glenn Cunningham, Jim Ryun, Billy Mills and other greats get around to claiming Eugene as the "birthplace of running," that will surely be news. As will the fact that the University of Chicago played host to the NCAA championships virtually every year, 13 times, from 1921-36 (they were at USC in 1934, Cal-Berkeley in 1935).

Meanwhile, giving credit where it is due: boosters of the move to see so much action in Eugene, like Vin Lananna, the farsighted senior university associate athletic director who is also president of the entity that is itself called TrackTown USA, envision Hayward being a permanent site for the NCAA championships, like Omaha, Neb., is for men's baseball, or Oklahoma City for softball.

And that's fine.

But there are two key distinctions.

One, Omaha's convention and tourism bureau, for instance, recognized that it was unlikely to be a so-called "big-league" town like nearby St. Louis or Kansas City. Those cities actually really do have NFL and Major League Baseball teams.

So to build the Omaha "brand," they aggressively sought the College World Series and have bid successfully in recent years for events such as the U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming. They are concededly after a wholesome, family-style vibe.

Eugene is hardly in competition with Portland or Seattle. And maybe track and field is after the family scene and maybe it's after the die-hard -- nobody is quite sure what audience it's after. That's for sure one of the challenges. Another of the many issues facing the sport is that, if you've never been to an evening at the track before, you often leave after three -- or more -- hours feeling you're not quite sure what you've just seen.

At any rate, the key distinction is this:

Track is the No. 1 sport at the Summer Olympics. You can like it or not, Omaha and Oklahoma City, but baseball and softball are no longer in the Games.

Moreover, everyone in Eugene and, for that matter, Oregon, you can this it or not as well, but the IAAF, track's international governing body, wants more in the United States. Way more. They look at this country, and they see New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Miami, big cities, all these huge and important markets, and the only activity seemingly going on of note is in Eugene, or Portland, and Portland is hardly a top TV market, and they ask -- huh?

And that, friends, is altogether a reasonable question if you want track and field to stop being a niche sport in the United States.

Norm Bellingham on his USOC big push

If you know the story of the 1500 meters at the 1936 Berlin Games, you know how it was one of those races that carried with it great expectations. If most such events never live up to such expectations, this was one for all time. Among the starters were six of the top seven finishers from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, including the defending champion, Luigi Beccali of Italy. Also in the field: the American Glenn Cunningham, whose leg had been badly burned when he was a boy, and Jack Lovelock of New Zealand, a former Rhodes Scholar who was now a medical student.

Lovelock had meticulously trained for a killer final sprint and that, ultimately, is what won him the race, in world-record time, after a race marked by fantastic strategy and tactics, one that pushed the standards of human excellence of all who were in it to a higher level, four minutes in time to celebrate then and forever after.

Hanging now outside the fifth-floor executive offices of the U.S. Olympic Committee's new headquarters building is an oversize black-and-white photo from that race.

That's Norm's doing.

Around the USOC offices in Colorado Springs, Colo, in fact, there are hundreds of photos from the last 100 years of the modern Olympic Games. There's a fascinating quality to the pictures. They show winning, of course. But not in any of those moments of triumph can you find anyone else's despair.

Not even in the photo depicting the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team famous semifinal-round victory. Here, instead, the shot is of the Americans shaking hands with the Soviets.

That's Norm's doing, too.

"To have a chance to have been part of something that has a big impact and that brings the world together -- it has been great," Norm Bellingham was saying the other day on the phone.

Norm's last day as the USOC's chief operating officer is this coming Friday. They announced his resignation last Friday -- the USOC playing it smart, announcing it essentially right before Super Bowl Sunday, knowing it would essentially get little play in the mainstream media.

And that's pretty much what happened.

The USOC played it that way for three reasons:

One, Norm made a lot of money. It's all public information, right there in the Form 990s the USOC puts out every summer.

Two, Norm was at the center of the aborted launch in the summer of 2009 of the USOC television network.

Three, Norm was a candidate to be the USOC boss and didn't get the job.

As for the money, Norm never negotiated his salary. Former USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth told him, here's your package.

The aborted network launch remains, in many regards, a mystery. But this much is certain: There will, at some point, be an Olympic channel. It's inevitable.

And though Norm didn't get the CEO job -- the fact that he stayed on for more than a year, and helped Scott Blackmun, who did get the job, speaks to Norm's character.

Norm came to the USOC in the first instance because he wanted to give back to a movement that has made a difference in his own life.

Norm is an Olympic gold medalist, in kayaking in 1988. "Chariots of Fire" is without a doubt his favorite movie; he has an original poster from the movie in his office.

Norm has a remarkable background. He grew up in India and Nepal. His personal hero is Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mt. Everest. Norm has an MBA from Harvard. And on and on.

A big part of Norm's job over the past four-plus years was to make business decisions. Some of those decisions didn't sit well with certain constituents within the so-called U.S. Olympic "family" (these decisions came in the ordinary course of USOC business and for purposes of this point stand apart from the 2009 drama  over the TV network).

So what? None of that has anything to do with the big picture: Doesn't any entity want its senior officers to get it? To understand the mission?

In Norm's case, it can be said that he not only understood the mission -- he has a genuine soulfulness for it.

That's why that picture of the 1936 1500 hangs outside the executive offices.

It's why Norm was rapt when Lou Zamperini came through Colorado Springs recently, the World War II hero telling Norm what it was like to compete at those 1936 Games. Norm, meanwhile, played Zamperini an audio tape of the race and when the call to the line went out over the loudspeaker went out -- in German, of course -- Zamperini, all these years later, froze for a brief moment.

Like being there all over again, he whispered to Norm. (Among Zamperini's incredible accomplishments: eighth place in the 1936 5000 meters.)

"You can look in their eyes," Norm said, referring to that black-and-white photo of those great runners from that classic 1500 from Berlin, "and it transports you back to a different time. And yet the striving for excellence in 1936 is the same as now; the young people pursuing excellence now is the same; we're all the same.

"That, I think is one of the ultimate lessons of the Olympic Games. They reveal the fact that were all the same, and they celebrate our humanity."

He said a moment or two later, "I"m really grateful I had this opportunity," meaning at the USOC." As for what's next: "There are only so many big pushes in life. You have to select them wisely. This one was worth it."