Prefontaine Classic

Team Eaton: all that is good in track and field


PORTLAND, Ore. — Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton are the best thing going in track and field. He won the heptathlon Saturday at the 2016 world indoor championships. She won the pentathlon the day before, her first world title. It’s not just that they win. It’s how they win. With grace. Dignity. Sportsmanship. Respect for themselves, their fellow athletes and the sport.

And with love.

There’s not a lot of visible love in track. With the Eatons, it’s different.

In the instant after Brianne was named the pentathlon winner, Ashton, in his warm-ups amid the long jump competition, bolted onto the track to embrace his wife.

What love looks like, in three parts: Brianne Theisen-Eaton gets a big hug from husband Ashton Eaton moments after she is announced as pentathlon winner // Getty Images for IAAF

Part two // Getty Images for IAAF

Brianne Theisen-Eaton gets a big hug from husband Ashton Eaton moments after she is announced as pentathlon winner // Getty Images for IAAF)"

That hug said not only that he knew what she had been through — because he was himself going through it — but how proud he was of her.

In a sport that has generated headlines for years, and intensely in recent months for all the wrong reasons, there is absolutely no question that Ashton and Brianne are emblematic of doing it the right way.

Don't doubt: Ashton and Brianne compete clean. There’s zero reason to entertain even a whisper of a suspicion. Never has been, never will be.

Enjoy this, people.

Better — cherish it.

Because even as Team Eaton stands atop the world, you can see that these 2016 indoors, in their way, may very well signal the beginning of the end.

Assuming Ashton re-qualifies this summer at the U.S. Trials in Eugene, which absent injury would seem a mortal lock, and then goes on to defend his London 2012 decathlon gold medal, the logical question awaits: what’s left to do? If, as seems likely, Brianne wins a medal in Rio, potentially gold, what's left to achieve?

Answer: nothing, really.

And these multi-event competitions are hard, really hard, on the body. He turned 28 in January. She turns 28 in December.

Brianne, who grew up in Saskatchewan and competes internationally for Canada, has lived in Eugene since 2007. She and Ashton went to school there, at the University of Oregon. Coming into this meet, she had won three world silver medals, two outdoor and one indoor.

She won that first international gold Friday night after leaping from third place to first in the final event, the 800, running an indoor personal-best 2:09.99.

Afterward, she said, “Whether it was a gold, silver or bronze, or no medal at all, I would have been satisfied with how I did.”

Running to gold in the 800 meters // Getty Images for the IAAF

Asked about having Ashton nearby during competition, she said, “Seeing him calms me down. When you are in a stressful situation, competing at something like this, sometimes you want to give up or [you think], ‘I just can’t handle this pressure anymore.’ But seeing him on the sideline running toward me to help me with something helps calm me down a little bit and being able to celebrate this with him is really awesome and the cherry on the top.”

Ashton is the only combined events athlete in history to have won multiple world titles indoors and out, and to have secured multiple world records indoors and out. And of course that London 2012 gold.

“People call me the greatest athlete in the world and I don't feel like it,” Ashton said here earlier this week at a welcome dinner attended by both local dignitaries as well as staff and officials from the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, track’s worldwide governing body, including president Seb Coe.

“I just feel like the most fortunate person in the world.”

On Saturday afternoon, at the wrap-up of the pole vault part of the seven-event heptathlon, Ashton had the presence of mind to offer a shout-out to the thousands who had stayed at the Oregon Convention Center to watch him and the other athletes slogging through the heptathlon:

“Hey, I just want to say thanks to everybody for hanging out with us,” adding a moment later, “It really means a lot for you guys to stick around."

Last week, at the U.S. indoors, a stray pole vault bar cracked him on the top of the head, opening up a nasty cut that needed needed six stitches. No problem. He carried on, even making fun of it later on Twitter, calling it a “cutscene from a video game” and referring to himself as “#eatonstein.”

In the 1000 meters on Saturday night, the event that wrapped up the heptathlon, Ashton knew going in he was in no position to set a world record. So instead of having American teammate Curtis Beach pace him for a potential record, it made way more sense for Ashton to push Beach — sixth overall heading into the run — in a bid to get Beach up to third.

Beach ran the 1000 in 2:29.04, a new indoor championships best, Eaton crossing third in 2:35.22.

"I feel like I was going a lot faster than what that clock said, I’ll tell you what," Eaton said after.

Beach ended up finishing fourth, just eight points away from a bronze medal. Mathias Brugger of Germany, who finished second in the 1000 at 2:34.10, ended up third overall, with 6126 points. Oleksiy Kasyanov of Ukraine took second, with 6182.

"I’d rather get fourth with that effort instead of third with a mediocre effort," Beach said. "This crowd was amazing. It was such a fun experience."

In winning the 2016 heptathlon, Ashton became the first three-time world indoor champion. His final score: 6470. No, not a world record. At the same time, Eaton now owns five of the top six heptathlon totals in history.

Asked if his victory measured up to his wife's, Ashton said, still standing on the track, "Honestly, no. I was thinking, you know what, it doesn’t matter what happens to me." Referring to Brianne's triumph, he said, "That made the whole meet for me."

And the entire crowd went, "Aww."

Brianne on the podium during the medal ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland // Getty Images for IAAF

In the long jump portion of the heptathlon // Getty Images for IAAF

During the pole vault // Getty Images for IAAF

After the heptathlon // Getty Images for the IAAF

Heading into Rio, Ashton figures to be a big part of the NBC strategy for the Games, along with fellow track star Allyson Felix, swim king Michael Phelps and the gymnast Simone Biles.

The Olympic decathlon (men) and heptathlon (women) hold all the elements for outstanding a two-day reality-TV miniseries. The struggle, whether over 10 or seven events -- it's real.

After Rio, the stage would seem set for Ashton and Brianne to segue to whatever is the next chapter.

Broadcasting. Business. Foundation work. Parenthood.


A few days ago, the Eatons launched a concept called “What’s your gold?” The idea: to “share your journey toward a ‘personal gold’ — running a marathon, starting a business, fostering a shelter animal — whatever that ambition may be.”

After Rio, he — and she — have earned whatever they want to do.

"They help each other tremendously," their coach of six-plus years, Harry Marra, said. "They're a constant reinforcement to each other, and a support system," adding, "It's good to see."

Anyone with even a passing interest in track and field, however, ought to hope that each of them — and, as well, Marra, who is also a world-class person as well as coach — stays involved with the sport.

As things turn out, they may need track and field.

But the sport needs them more.

As their agent, Paul Doyle, told the IAAF website in a feature posted Thursday, “People often tell me that they think Ashton is the greatest athlete in the world. And I say, ‘No, he is the greatest human in the world.’ ”

At that Wednesday evening welcome dinner, Ashton told a story he had never before told in public.

When he was just 7 or 8, in a “small, mostly dirt-filled” little town in central Oregon called La Pine, about a half-hour south of  Bend, Ashton started long-jumping.

Well, not formally. He was just doing what kids do — playing around.

But that play is so fundamental, so essential, to track and field — which, after all, is the foundation of every sport.

Ashton said he would go outside in the yard and find two sticks. He put the first on the ground. That would be his take-off mark. The second he would put out some little distance away, to see if he could jump that far.

When he jumped past that second stick, he said, he would re-set. His new landing spot was where he fixed the second stick. When he passed that new spot, he would re-set again.

And again.

He does something of the same thing now in practice, Marra said. Now it's with ropes -- the second rope set at, say, 25 feet. If he beats that, Ashton says, move it out to 25-6.

In high school, Ashton said, he went for the first time to the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field in Eugene, typically a late May stop each year on what is now called the IAAF’s Diamond League circuit.

Crediting his coach at Mountain View High in Bend, Tate Metcalf, for knowing “how to inspire a young athlete,” Ashton said, “He took me to Hayward Field to watch the Prefontaine Classic. I would not be standing here today had I not been sitting in the front row of the grandstands at the Prefontaine Classic that day.

“While I loved running and doing the long jump, I didn't know what track and field could be. But when I went to the Prefontaine Classic, I saw these athletes who were absolute gods and goddesses to me. Not only that, I saw the love and admiration that I just had to give these athletes, that the fans in Oregon were giving to these athletes. I thought, 'I want to be a part of that.'

“Without that event, without seeing the potential of track and field, I don't think I'd be here.

“What you guys do – constantly working, day in and day out – to put something like that competition on, I just can't thank you enough.

“Somewhere in a room like this, people are doing that,” he said. “And little do they know there's this kid jumping around in the dirt whose life will one day be changed because he saw a track meet that these people put on, and the athletes that they were able to host displayed their skills so that this young athlete could be inspired. I honestly can't thank you guys enough.”

Eugene gets the 2021 track championships


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.

Vin Lananna and Bob Fasulo in Beijing // Twitter photo

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.”