Immediately after the hugely successful World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg 1995 – highlighted by Jonathan Edwards’ world record triple jumps and Michael Johnson’s double gold rehearsal for the following year’s Olympics – IAAF chief Primo Nebiolo declared that future championships were too important to be held in such a small venue. Sweden’s second city still has a population of well over half a million, and the 30,000+ seater stadium was packed for every session. Contrast that with Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon (where? I hear some of you ask), with a population of 174,000, which hosts the delayed 2021 World Championships, beginning on Friday. The impressive rebuilt stadium (funded by Nike) will normally hold over 12,000 people and though it is alleged to accommodate up to 30,000 for the world champs, local newspapers report a max of 17,000. Well, we’ll see if even those giddy numbers are reached!
Because the US Champs and Trials held at the same venue three weeks ago realised the following attendances, according to official ticket sales announced by USA Track & Field: 23 June, 2,751; 24 June 3,314; 25 June 3,664, and 26 June, 3,577. A little over 13,000 over four days! Tokyo Olympic women’s shot put silver medallist Raven Saunders tweeted, ‘We had more fans in Tokyo and we weren’t even allowed to have fans !!!’ On the other hand, the alternative poses different problems. In the unlikely event of an invasion, there are problems of accessibility; there is only an airfield rather than an airport in Eugene, so visitors have to change at San Francisco or Portland (or get off and drive). And the paucity of accommodation has meant grossly inflated prices, such that even USATF is housing officials in the state capital of Salem (no, not that one), an hour’s drive away. Then, there is the question of restaurant space – even at the poorly attended national champs, contacts who attended tell me that folks were having to drive out of town to search for highway burger bars. Finally, local press are questioning the inflated ticket prices, eg, finish line tickets for the men’s 100 metres’ final on Saturday come in at $910 (£765).
So, either way it’s not going to be pretty on the organisational/infrastructure side.
Now, of course, superlative performances will go a long way to offsetting any shortcomings in venue and hospitality, but this is a championships whose whole raison d’être has been questioned right from the start, when Eugene was given the privilege of hosting the event without the inconvenience of going through a selection process. Dare I say it, but that would be like choosing a new Conservative leader, ergo Prime Minister via a toss of the dice. Come to think about it… however, you will have heard/read more than enough on that score.
By a dark coincidence, Gothenburg was hoping to bid for this week’s upcoming world champs, but their potential bid never even got into the starting blocks. Eugene lost to Doha in the bid for the 2019 World Champs, but immediately got ‘awarded’ the 2021 champs without having to bid. The incoming president of European Athletics, Norway’s Svein Arne Hansen, said at the time (2015), ‘I am very surprised by the complete lack of process in the decision the IAAF has taken. The IAAF knew that Gothenburg was a serious candidate for the 2021 world championships. Swedish Athletics and the city had put in a lot of effort over the years to prepare the bidding application but they have not even been given the chance to bid for the event. This type of decision would just not happen within European Athletics as we have a comprehensive bidding process that all candidates must follow’. IAAF president, Lamine Diack said the decision to go the US, ‘enables us to take advantage of a unique opportunity to host a financially successful tournament that may never arise again.’
The decision had all the hallmarks of a stitch-up, with the lettering spelling out ‘Nike’. Briefly, Nike founder Phil Knight went to the University of Oregon in Eugene, and though Nike HQ is in Portland, two hours’ drive north of Eugene, it is the latter which is known alternatively as NikeTown or Track Town USA. I refer you to my piece following the 2019 World Champs in Doha for further elaboration – https://www.globerunner.org/10/gold-among-dross/
Nebiolo was almost universally vilified by those who did not like his abrasive style, and to my mind, his undoubted complicity in the ‘fixing’ of the world champs long jump in Rome 1987, when Giovanni Evangelisti was given a false distance which earned him the bronze medal (until the fraud was busted). But no one could doubt Nebiolo’s championing of athletics. He engineered the move of IAAF HQ from a back street in Knightsbridge to the middle of Monte Carlo with a commensurate elevation in income and attention. As one of my Italian journo colleagues once said, ‘The first thing that Nebiolo does when he wakes up is think how to improve athletics situation in the sports world; and that’s all he thinks until he goes to sleep at night’. As for his successor, Lamine Diack, aka Lame-Duck, for all that he was initially welcomed as a low-key change after Nebiolo, he proved susceptible to the corrupting influences of a known crook, his son Papa Diack. The pair blackmailed doped athletes, exonerating them in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars (again, check out the Doha piece). That IAAF vice-president Seb Coe, when he took over as President of World Athletics, could claim he never knew anything about the organised corruption being carried out systematically by the Diacks makes him automatically suspect of something – naivety, stupidity, turning a blind eye?
Doha was bad enough, ridiculously high temperatures and pathetically low crowds; following that with Eugene, aka Nowheresville, Oregon is compounding a felony, and is a further measure of the decline in interest and importance of Track & Field Athletics, whose heyday is getting increasingly distant.