EUGENE, Ore. – Like the river that runs northward through the heart of Eugene, the journey to the World Track and Field Championships this month is full of twists and turns, winding through parts of eight decades, a course steered by men defined both by their vision and defiance.
Men, who like the Willamette River, weren’t afraid to head in a different direction, taking their sport with them.
The most famous of those mavericks was the late Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who viewed the very act of racing as both a work of art and an act of defiance.
Prefontaine, forever restless and relentless, was frustrated through much of the first half of 1975, the final five months of his life.
Prefontaine, then–and many would argue still– American track and field’s most recognizable star, was tired of fighting with the Amateur Athletic Union, then the sport’s governing body. He was tired of being told by AAU officials when and where he could race internationally. He was tired of having to chase the world’s best across Europe each summer.
Why couldn’t the Africans, the New Zealanders and British, the Finns and the Belgians come to the U.S.? he asked repeatedly to anyone who would listen.
Prefontaine in particular was determined to lure Finland’s Lasse Viren, the 1972 Olympic champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, to Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus, the most storied venue in American track.
So in the spring of 1975, Prefontaine, known to his friends and fans as “Pre,” put together a series of meets in the Pacific Northwest featuring Finnish athletes.
“Imagine 24 years old being a meet promoter,” recalled Pat Tyson, Prefontaine’s Oregon teammate and roommate. “You’re creating something.”
The tour’s grand finale was to feature a showdown between Prefontaine and Viren in Eugene, a rematch of their epic duel in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 final in Munich, a race driven by the American’s unrelenting–some would say reckless–surges over the final mile. Perhaps more than any other race, the Munich final epitomized a man who once said he raced “to see who had the most guts.”
Viren pulled out of the Eugene race at the last minute. Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion and Viren’s last minute replacement, provided little competition for Prefontaine, who narrowly missed breaking his own American record in the 5,000, turning as he broke the finish tape to look back at an empty homestretch.
A few hours later he was dead, killed in a car crash in the hills above the Oregon campus. It would be another eight years before track held its first World Championships.
“Pre was way ahead of the time,” said former Oregon miler Mark Feig, another ex-teammate. “Think about it ‘75, putting on meets, getting the international athletes to come to Eugene.
”That was the beginning of international meets for Eugene.”
Prefontaine’s vision of bringing the finest athletes on the planet to a place that calls itself “Tracktown USA” will come to life with the World Championships which open Friday and will run through July 24 at the year-old rebuilt Hayward Field beneath a 10-story tower bearing Pre’s likeness.
The first Worlds ever on U.S. soil and the most important track meet on the West Coast since the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (the 1984 Games were depleted by the Soviet bloc boycott) will feature what Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics track’s international governing body, calls a “golden generation” of athletes; a glittering mix of world record holders, Olympic champions and rising stars who have shattered or are threatening standards that for decades had been considered out of reach..
Those records are further endangered by what Gail Devers, the two-time Olympic 100-meter champion calls “the fastest track in the world” at the the House that Phil Built, the new Hayward Field, a $200-million plus state of the art facility largely financed by Phil Knight, the Nike co-founder and a former Oregon middle distance runner.
The meet, pushed back a year in response to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to delay the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by a year, will also showcase this college town at the south end of the Willamette Valley that has held an outsized influence in the sport both nationally and internationally for decades.
“It’s not necessarily viewed here as the culmination of all these decades of track and field,” said Tom Jordan, Prefontaine’s biographer and the longtime director of the Prefontaine Classic. “That Eugene as the track capital of America will continue whether this is a complete success or complete failure but I think the excitement will build to where people take pride that after all these decades Eugene is going to be the center of the track and field world.”
Track and field is at a critical moment in the U.S.
Oregon ‘22 also comes at a critical juncture for both American track and field and Tracktown USA.
“There are some opportunities here that we cannot allow to slide by,” said Coe, a two-time Olympic 1,500-meter champion for Great Britain.
“Of those opportunities we mustn’t squander, Eugene, Oregon is a huge moment for us and we should be absolutely aware of that.”
Coe, an International Olympic Committee member and president of the 2012 London Olympics organizing committee, is among those who believe a successful Worlds could be a launching pad to raise the profile in this country of a sport whose popularity at the high school and youth levels and Olympic and World Championships triumphs have not translated into television ratings, box office or marketing success at the professional level.
The World Championships also present Eugene with an opportunity to live up to the claim as Tracktown USA with a global television audience watching, a chance to solidify its place in the sport’s domestic and international histories while silencing critics who doubt a city with a population of 170,000 can pull off a major international event and those who insist the sport’s reliance on Eugene has hindered American track and field’s growth.
“It takes its shots from what I call Eugene haters among the track and field followers,” said Jon Anderson, a Eugene native and the 1973 Boston Marathon winner. “But where would we be without Nike and Eugene in track and field?”
Nike roots are in Eugene. Longtime Oregon head coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman in between coaching Olympians and NCAA champions produced the prototype to the brand’s iconic shoe tread while experimenting with his wife Barbara’s waffle iron.
Nike is USA Track & Field’s leading corporate sponsor, the parties agreeing to a $400-million 23-year deal in 2014. The shoe company is also the sponsor of the Prefontaine Classic, the only U.S. stop on the Diamond League, the sport’s premier circuit. The Pre meet is regularly ranked as the top single-day track meet in the world.
The Worlds, Anderson said, are “certainly the result of what Bowerman started back in the late 50s.”
It was Bowerman, a quarter-miler under legendary Oregon coach Bill Hayward in the 1930s, coaching Bill Dellinger, a future three-time Olympian, who would launch in the mid-1950s the greatest middle and long distance dynasty in college history. It was Bowerman who first brought the NCAA Championships to Eugene in 1962, the Ducks winning the team title by more than doubling runner-up Villanova’s score. It was Bowerman who convinced the U.S. Olympic Committee to hold the 1968 Olympic Trials in Echo Summit, California on an eight-day schedule to mirror the Olympic Games program. And it was Bowerman and his close friend Bob Newland, the North Eugene High School principal who doubled as a meet director, who in 1972 brought the first of seven Olympic Trials to Hayward Field.
The 1972 decision came down to Los Angeles and Eugene. Los Angeles wanted to hold a two-day meet at the Coliseum. Newland and Bowerman insisted on hosting a Trials that followed the Munich eight-day competition schedule.
“Properly staged,” Newland told the selection committee according to the book “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon” “a track meet is a thing of beauty.”
Newland was right.
The 1972 meet transformed the Olympic Trials, smashing records on both the track and at the box office. The 1976 and 1980 Trials in Eugene continued to set records on and off the track and in the case of the 1980 meet challenged–or shamed–the sports powers that be to increase competitive opportunities for women. The 1980 Olympic Trials held three “special women’s events”–the 5,000, 10,000, and the 400-meter hurdles. The 400 hurdles for women were added to the Olympic Games program in 1984. The 10,000 wasn’t added until 1988. The 5,000 for women didn’t become an Olympic event until 1996 in Atlanta.
The Olympic Trials returned to Tracktown in 2008 and like the 2012 and 2016 Trials that followed continued to draw record-setting crowds and inspire historic performances. The 2008 meet produced arguably the most thrilling race and unquestionably the loudest moment in Trials history–the so called “Oregon Sweep” in the men’s 800 won by with Oregon Track Club star Nick Symmonds followed by Duck sophomore Andrew Wheating with the OTC’s Christian Smith claiming the third and final Team USA spot by inches with a desperate dive across the finish line that touched off a roar that was said to have been heard from miles away.
“Hayward cranked up to 11,” Wheating said.
Last summer’s Olympic Trials were lightly attended because of the pandemic but were book-ended by a pair of world records, Ryan Crouser in the shot put (76-feet, 8 1/4 inches) on the meet’s opening night and Sydney McLaughlin in the 400 hurdles (51.90 seconds) on its final evening.
Jordan noted that the first World Championships were held in 1983, a decade after Bowerman retired as Oregon’s head coach.
But this upcoming Worlds, Jordan added “in terms of vision it’s certainly worthy of Bowerman. He thought big and Vin also thinks big. So I think it’s not a straight line trajectory up but I think there is kind of a comfort zone with the idea that Eugene is big enough to host the Worlds.”
Vin would be Vin Lananna, the Oregon head track and field and cross country coach from 2005 and 2012, who led the way in returning the Olympic Trials to Eugene and securing the 2022 Worlds.
Lananna, who headed Tracktown USA, the non-profit local meet organizing committee from 2008 to 2018 and has been president of USA Track & Field, the sport’s national governing body, since 2016, paved the way to Oregon ‘22 by first landing the 2014 World Junior Championships for Eugene and 2016 World Indoor Championships for Portland. Lananna currently is also the director of track and cross country at the University of Virginia.
“Really this World Championships is the vision of one person and that’s Vin Lananna,” Jordan said. “Without him taking the lead and actually bringing it to the IAAF, now World Athletics, it wouldn’t be happening. And along those same lines, Vin while he was here produced three Olympic Trials, a Junior World Championship and the World Indoors. Without which there would be no World Championships in Eugene.”
But the awarding of Worlds to Eugene and Lananna and Coe’s roles in the process have been the sources of controversy.
World Athletics, then known as the IAAF, awarded Eugene the World Championships in April 2015 without a formal bidding process. The no-bid process for such a high profile major international event was unusual but not unprecedented. Osaka was awarded the 2007 Worlds without an open-bid process.
Eugene in November 2014 had earlier been edged out by Doha to host the 2019 Worlds. Both the Eugene bids for the World outdoor championships and Portland’s campaign for the 2016 World Indoor meet were bankrolled by Nike. Coe, an IAAF vice chairman since 2007, at the time was the chairman of the IAAF’s evaluation commission for potential World Championship sites. He was also a paid global ambassador for Nike, hired by the Beaverton-based company in February 2013. Nine months later Portland was awarded the World Indoor meet.
Even after being elected as World Athletics president in August 2015, Coe initially refused to give up his role with Nike, which came with a reported six-figure salary. He finally cut ties with Nike in November 2015.
USATF placed Lananna on “temporary administrative leave” pending the outcome of FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigations into the awarding of the 2021 Worlds to Eugene. The FBI and IRS were investigating possible fraud, racketeering and money laundering charges, according to media reports. There is no indication that Lananna was a target of the investigation. There has been no indictment or public action taken by the Justice Department in the case.
Lananna and Coe have denied any wrongdoing. Lananna was reinstated as USATF president in December 2019. He did not respond to requests for an interview.
“All the layers of this just doesn’t happen if there weren’t a lot of characters like Vin Lananna and Nike,” said Tyson, who after one of the most successful runs in prep distance running history at Spokane’s Mead High School has taken a Gonzaga program from nothing to a place of national prominence. “But the foundation was Hayward, Bowerman, Dellinger, Pre. Pre was one of the characters in this.”
Prefontaine’s outsized influence
Legend has it that Bowerman didn’t join the dozens of colleges recruiting Prefontaine until the spring of his senior year at Marshfield High in Coos Bay, a logging and fishing town on the Oregon coast.
If he came to Oregon, Bowerman finally wrote in a handwritten note Prefontaine later recalled, the coach would make him into the best runner in the world.
Dellinger, then Oregon assistant, had actually been recruiting Prefontaine for months, inviting him to attend a high performance meet for Olympic prospects at Hayward in August 1968, just weeks before the start of his senior year in high school. His roommate for the weekend was Tyson, then weeks away from being an Oregon freshman.
The highlight of the meet was former Oregon runner Kenny Moore upsetting Washington State’s Gerry Lindgren, an 11-time NCAA champion and world record-holder in the 10,000.
“It was just pure energy,” Tyson said, recalling the memory of him and Prefontaine watching the race from the President’s box at Hayward’s famed East Grandstand as it rocked to the crowd’s feet stomping with Moore’s every step. “It felt like we were in church and there’s no way this is really happening. I think most people who come to their first meet there feel the same way.
“There was no way Kenny Moore should even touch this kid.
“There’s Pre and me and we’re just freakin’ stoked. When it was over we went back to the dorm and got into our running clothes.”
They headed off the Oregon campus up Birch Lane, an unforgiving hill that rises above the Willamette River, to the trails through the forest of Hendricks Park.
“And we could barely see the moon, I don’t know but somehow we lifted our knees a little higher in the dark,” Tyson said. “And you’re so pumped because you saw Kenny Moore take down the legend. ‘I guess when I go to college in the fall, I’m going to heaven.’”
As an Oregon freshman Prefontaine was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and won the first of his four NCAA 3-mile/5,000 meter titles, becoming the first athlete to win four NCAA crowns in the same event. He was the star of the 1972 Olympic Trials, winning the 5,000 in an American record.
“The thing I remember about it was coming off the last turn, Pre was completely dead–just wobbling up the straightaway,” Marty Liquori, later the American record-holder at 5,000, told Jordan. “He hit the rail and almost stumbled, and the fans were loving it because he was completely spent when he hit the line.”
The loggers and the mill workers connected with Prefontaine’s blue collar roots and his work ethic. To those caught up in the anti-war movement, they saw a kindred spirit in the outspoken star who wasn’t afraid to take on the establishment.
“A lot of us thought there was going to be a complete change in consciousness in the nation, an overall increase in mercy and patience and humor. All you had to do was spread the word around and it was all going to be OK,” the author Ken Kesey, who grew up near Eugene, told me in 1995. “You really felt him as an ally. I think everybody that was sort of a revolutionary recognized from the look in his eye he’s more than a runner.”
On spring Saturday afternoons they all cram into Hayward Field, the hippies and the hard hats, the professors and the young kids, forming a cult that cut across social and cultural lines, shaking Hayward’s wooden stands with their stomping, urging him on with chants of “Go Pre Go!”
“Pre’s People” they called themselves
“Watching him run was a unique feeling I’ve never experienced anywhere else in sports,” said former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, an Oregon assistant football coach in the early ’70s. “It was an electric feeling – the screaming and hysteria was like this big old envelope that engulfed all of us. It was so emotional I’d have tears in my eyes. It was a great natural high that you don’t forget and you can’t duplicate chemically.”
“There was a sense of something holy going on,” Kesey said, “and something tragic about Prefontaine.”
He promised to turn the Olympic 5,000 final into a race to see “who’s the toughest,” boasting he was prepared to run the final mile under 4 minutes. Prefontaine, at 21, the youngest man in the field by two years, wouldn’t win but he made the race one of the most thrilling in Olympic history.
After the field crawled through two miles in 8 minutes, 56.4 seconds, Prefontaine cut the 67-second a lap pace to 62.5, then 61.2 and 60.3, dropping all but Finland’s Lasse Viren and Mohamed Gamoudi of Tunisia at the bell. With 300 meters remaining, Prefontaine charged for the lead but was cut off by Gamoudi. With 200 meters left Prefontaine pulled wide and was again cut off and lost momentum. Spent, he faded down the home stretch, staggering across the finish line fourth.
“He was just a kid and he could have easily won a medal, if he had run for second or third,” said Geoff Hollister, his close friend. “But that wasn’t Pre. That wasn’t who he was.”
In 1975, Prefontaine, two years out of Oregon, wanted another shot at Viren, this time in Eugene.
“He wanted to get Viren over here and see what he could do against Viren on home soil,” said Anderson who ran in Prefontaine’s final race.
So after much resistance from the AAU he put together the Finnish tour. It was, his friends later recalled, a learning experience.
Hollister, a longtime Nike promotions director who died in 2012, recalled a planning meeting with Prefontaine.
“How are you picking them up?” Hollister said.
“I’m driving out to meet them at the airport,” Prefontaine answered. At the time he drove a butterscotch MG.
One of the Finnish athletes was pole vaulter Antti Kalliomaki.
“And are you going to pick them up in your MG?” Hollister said. “Where is Antti going to put his poles?”
To Prefontaine, Hollister later recalled laughing, the questions seemed more annoying than helpful.
Another oversight would prove more damaging to the tour. Prefontaine turned in a world class 10,000 in brutal conditions at Hayward that April. Bowerman worried that the effort would scare Viren off. He was right. Viren pulled out of the tour.
“He worked his rear off and he had a commitment that he was coming,” Feig said of Prefontaine. “Pre was pissed. Rightfully so. We all were.”
But that night at a party at Hollister’s home, Prefontaine talked not about Viren’s no-show but about breaking the world record in the 10,000 in Helsinki the following month.
Instead he was killed later that night when his MG flipped after hitting a rock outcropping, pinning him underneath and suffocating him just a few yards from where he and Tyson had run up Birch Lane seven years earlier.
“Pre,” Kesey said “was like Henry V. He didn’t rule very long but he left a big mark.”
An invitational meet scheduled for Hayward the following week was renamed by Bowerman the Prefontaine Classic.
“In living memorial to Pre–his inspiration, his ambition,” Bowerman said.
In the following years, the meet would time and again prove worthy of its namesake. The Pre Classic has produced four world records and more than 200 sub-4:00 miles, more than any other meet.
“I always opened up my season at Prefontaine,” Devers said. “I just loved the energy of the fans and they knew track and field and they showed up, and because they showed up it made you as an athlete want to show out. They showed up, we showed out.
“It gives you an energy.”
Others, however, question whether the sport can find salvation this month in Tracktown.
Symmonds, who still lives in Eugene, was asked what the sport could do to make sure it didn’t squander the platform the Worlds presented.
“Stop having every meet in Eugene,” he said.
“To say Oregon is the mecca of track and field, to think that this thing is somehow going to save track and field is absurd right? This tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. That’s why I like living here. It’s not Monaco. It’s not Shanghai. It’s not the type of place you expect to typically see on the world’s center stage.”
Is the sport too dependent on Eugene?
Symmonds is one of a growing number of prominent figures in the sport who believe American track has become too dependent on Eugene, that If the professional sport in this country is to truly grow, it has to extend its footprint to major markets like New York or Los Angeles.
Four of the last seven U.S. Championships have been held in Eugene, eight of the last 10 NCAA Outdoor meets. Tracktown this year has already hosted the Pac-12, NCAA and U.S. Championships as well as the Pre Classic.
So how does the sport grow in the U.S. if every major domestic meet is held within the friendly confines of Hayward Field?
“That is a challenge and you’re absolutely right,” Coe said. “I wish that we’d been given more options around other American cities that came to the table. We didn’t and USA Track & Field has to make that judgment. I think there are some areas where we have helped.”
Others, however, argue Eugene isn’t the problem.
“New York couldn’t hold this meet,” said Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic, eight-time World champion sprinter, referring to Worlds. “Los Angeles couldn’t hold this meet.”
The 2005 U.S. Championships at the then Home Depot Center in Carson were a box office disaster. A meet sponsored by Adidas that same decade also in Carson produced a series of world class marks but also went largely ignored by the public.
“New York city had a pretty big meet with some world class athletes only a few weeks ago and drew about a grand total of a thousand people to Randall’s Island,” Anderson said. “So interpret that the way you would. I think Eugene has been a leader.”
But even some of the locals are questioning whether Tracktown isn’t suffering from what has been referred to as “Eugene fatigue.”
The four-day U.S. Championships last month drew a total of just 13,306 fans and there are concerns about how the optics of small crowds during Worlds would impact the sport moving forward.
“If we can’t fill the stadium in Tracktown USA, we’re in bigger trouble than we think,” said world champion sprinter Ato Boldon, now an analyst with NBC Sports.
Although some days at Worlds are expected to sell out, Symmonds and others say the sport’s hardcore fans are experiencing sticker shock when it comes to Oregon ‘22.
Tickets for a section next to the finish line at next Saturday night’s session that includes the men’s 100 final are listed at $910 on the meet’s official website. Upper deck tickets on the homestretch are listed at $375.
“I think we’re shell-shocked when we look at prices,” Symmonds said. “I’m going to call it out right there. When I used to go to track meets at old Hayward Field it was $5 to $10 to get in. Now you’re looking at tickets that are $100 a pop or you know for World Championships $500 for a single session? Get out of here. I mean this is Eugene, Oregon. This is not New York. This is not LA. This is Eugene, Oregon and if you want us, myself included, to go watch track and field, you won’t find someone who loves track and field more than me, I’m not paying $500 for one session.
“They’re not getting people like me to spend money and that’s a problem because I’m the kind of person that has disposable income. I’m the person that loves track and field. And I’m looking at what they’re offering and it just doesn’t seem very attractive to me.”
Visitors also have to find a place to stay with Eugene’s already limited hotel/motel inventory coupled with price gouging has driving prices up to as high as $659 per night, which is what the local Comfort Suites is charging.
“I think there’s a lot of wonderment about whether it can be brought off in a spectacular manner. I don’t think anybody doubts that what happens on the field of play will be equal or better than what’s happened at any other World Championships,” Jordan said. “But whether people find housing. Whether people find places to eat and so on. I think that is still to be determined. I think there’s kind of a holding your breath waiting to see what happens.”
Attendance at Hayward, this year some local organizing officials acknowledge, has been hurt by the backlash within the community over the handling of the decision to tear down Hayward Field’s beloved wooden East Grandstand, viewed as sacred ground by locals and within the sport, in 2018 to make room for Knight’s new stadium. The project was moved forward with little community input and with Knight making it clear he would only fund the new stadium if it was rebuilt with a design he approved of.
Longtime Eugene resident Peter Craycroft in an interview with the Register Guard newspaper at the time of the demolition compared the East Grandstand to a Stradivarius, a rare violin.
“You don’t destroy the Stradivarius,” he said. “You didn’t have to take this down.”
Knight cracked to the Register Guard at the time that he might be the most reviled man in Eugene.
“I think there are people who have stepped away from track and field because of it, but the numbers are relatively small,” Jordan said.
Others question the necessity of building a stadium that promised to hold up 30,000 fans for Worlds for one meet? The actual seating capacity for Worlds is less than 18,000 but still thousands more than what is needed for most Hayward Field events.
“I think it’s a gorgeous stadium,” Symmonds said. “It’s perfect, right. It’s exactly what you want a world class stadium to be. But as a guy who calls this community home, it’s out of place. It sits there empty for 300 some days a year and that’s a real shame.”
But even traditionalists like Tyson admit Eugene “really did need a stadium. Hayward wasn’t going to work, the old Hayward. As much as you loved it, it wasn’t going to create a World Championships setting.”
The test now for Tracktown is can it build a bridge between Eugene’s rich history and a future the professional sport needs in order to thrive domestically? Can Eugene, like Bowerman and Prefontaine, once again lead the way?
“Hayward Field when I was a competitive athlete was magical,” said Kara Goucher, a Worlds silver medalist in the 10,000 and two-time Olympian who is now an analyst for NBC. “Packed stands, knowledgeable fans. People that know what you’re trying to do and understand what it takes to get to where you are. Obviously old Hayward has been turned into this amazing, jaw dropping stadium. But it also professionalizes it a little bit. It shows that these are professional athletes. This is what they do for a living. And so I think you can tap into the magic of the history of it but also embrace the new and the professional look of it and how good it is for the athletes.”
So for nine days the world’s best athletes, McLaughlin and Crouser, Hassan and Warholm, Fraser-Pryce and Duplantis, will chase records and ghosts around Hayward Field beneath the distant gaze of Prefontaine, towering as he always did above Tracktown, above the sport.
“It validates Tracktown USA or Tracktown of the World, whatever you want to call it,” Tyson said “It just validates it. Everybody in the world wants to come here and maybe Pre didn’t get Lasse Viren but all those things that happened back then, Pre’s vision, if he was alive today, you know he’d be smiling.”