Trinidad: Is Eugene ready to host the world?

The Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore on Saturday, May 27, 2017. (Adam Eberhardt/Emerald)

Vin Lananna, president of TrackTown USA and United States Track and Field, is one of track and field’s most influential figures and has been on a crusade to make track and field not only a household sport in Eugene, but across the country. But his shocking success to bring the 2021 IAAF World Track and Field Championships, the crown jewel of the sport outside of the Olympics, to Eugene captures Lananna’s true mission: revitalizing interest in a waning sport.

“This will not just be for Eugene, not just for Tracktown … It’s about what we’re going to do for the sport of track and field,” Lananna said in a press conference after the event was announced.

If anyone can revitalize the popularity of track, it’s Lananna. He helped lead the UO track and cross country programs to six NCAA titles and propelled former Ducks to the Olympics to become household names, such as distance runner Galen Rupp, decathlete Ashton Eaton, and sprinter Jenna Prandini. He spearheaded efforts to bring the 2014 World Junior Championship to Eugene. And he made Hayward Field the defacto home to the NCAA Championship, U.S. Championship and U.S. Olympic Trials for the past 10 years.

Lananna proved he could reinvigorate track in a town synonymous with the sport. But it’s unlikely he can share his success outside of Tracktown because America has stopped caring about track.

Track and field has become a niche sport outside of Eugene and it’s unlikely a one-time event will change that. The deterioration of the sport’s popularity is embodied by the diminished Millrose Games, one of the world’s longest-running and most prestigious indoor competitions. For much of the event’s 100-year history, it regularly drew 18,000 people to watch the world’s best athletes compete at New York’s Madison Square Garden. However, attendance dropped to about 9,000 people by 2011 and lost $500,000 every year. Since then, the games have moved to the Armory, which holds about 5,000 people. Although it still remains a prestigious event, it has lost its glamour.

But most Americans likely don’t even know the Millrose Games exist. I didn’t know about it until I joined the UO Running Club and surrounded myself with track fans. This is likely different from the norm where most Americans only acknowledge track’s existence every four years during the Olympics. Nevertheless, Lananna is persisting to change that.

With an estimated price tag of $68 million to bring the event to Eugene, Lananna is doubling down on his previous attempts to reignite American interest in the sport. Since Lananna joined TrackTown USA in 2012, he brought the world to Oregon with the 2014 World Junior Championships in Eugene and the 2016 World Indoor Championships to Portland. But these events did not help the sport’s domestic popularity.

These events were only followed by New York City withdrawing from the Diamond League, IAAF’s worldwide competition series, in 2016 due to declining audiences. This leaves Eugene as the only U.S. city in the series.

In another effort to generate interest in the sport, TrackTown USA also started its own American competition series, but was met with little interest outside of the track community. Tom Heinonen, who served as the UO women’s track and field and cross country coach for 27 years, said its difficult to create a following for track among people who know nothing about the sport.

“Track is too complicated, too varied, too intricate,” Heinonen said. “And there’s no ball and there’s no score.”

However, Lananna is optimistic. He said the event provides an opportunity to bring Hayward Field into the modern era and attract more international events to not only Eugene, but to the United States. He is also optimistic that the creation of a world-class facility will cement Eugene as the track capital of the country in the long run and become the permanent home to the NCAA Track and Field Championships.

But Lananna’s $68 million bet on track and field may not be successful in generating interest around the country, let alone Eugene.

Outside of the world championship, it is difficult to imagine what event would be able to draw a crowd to fill the new stadium after its expansion for 2021. College meets and the high school state championship rarely exceed half capacity without the additional seating. Expanding the stadium will only make an already half empty stadium more cavernous and jarring. Unless Eugene becomes the permanent home to the U.S. Championship, Olympic Trials and the NCAA championship, it is difficult to see how this investment will pay off.

Although he has tied the games to promoting Oregon and the United States to the world, Lananna’s mission has almost always focused on helping popularize the sport in the United States. However, this makes his beleaguered bid – which has been plagued with funding missteps, construction delays and an FBI investigation – look short sighted.

As a former cross country and track athlete, having the world come to Eugene for track’s premiere event is the opportunity of a lifetime. I have been fortunate enough to watch the World Indoor Championships, U.S. Olympic Trials, NCAA Championships and the Prefontaine Classic since I’ve been at the UO, and they all inspired me as an athlete. Lananna’s attempt to bring track and field back from the abyss of the American consciousness is admirable, but it seems like a fool’s errand with a huge price tag.

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