Four years ago, the U.S Olympic Track and Field Trials were held in Eugene to great acclaim, and the Trials return to that small Oregon city that calls itself Tracktown USA later this week. According to one estimate, the 2012 Trials offer the potential of bringing $55 million to the region, so hosting the event is of no small consequence. Eugene did a great job in 2008, and few doubt that it will do so again. But would it be better for the sport to spread the wealth—not just the monetary kind, but also the rich spirit and connection that attending an Olympic Trials offers? Might it be better to situate them in a larger market, or on the East Coast for more media exposure? Going Head to Head on the topic are longtime track journalists James Dunaway, who has reported on the Trials since 1964, and Dick Patrick, former Olympics writer for USA Today, who has covered six Trials going back to 1988.
Dick Patrick: For at least the short term it would be great if the Trials were anchored in Eugene. I’m looking forward to this year’s edition because the 2008 Trials provided the best atmosphere of any track meet I’ve ever been to. I think that for an event as important as the Trials, where performance is the key, we should make performance the key for the host city, too. And as long as Eugene can keep providing a standard as strong as they set in ’08, it helps the sport promote itself by having such an enthusiastic, knowledgeable fan base there to help the sport present itself on television and other media, so I think that until and unless Eugene gets complacent or loses interest we should keep the Trials there.
James Dunaway: No question that the 2008 Trials in Eugene were terrific and there was an enthusiastic crowd. But there are some specific concerns about Eugene. Many Oregon-based athletes say that they have a home-field advantage, which isn’t terribly desirable. Another concern about Eugene is the problem of allergies, with a number of world-class athletes not being able to perform at their best because of what’s been called “the grass-seed capital of the world.” There are a number of cities that could put on the Trials, given the proper supervision by USATF and the USOC. After all, in the past 30 years LA has had the Trials, Atlanta has done it, Sacramento I think did very well in 2000 and 2004, New Orleans was OK, Indy in ’88. There’s no reason you can’t get large and enthusiastic crowds anywhere there’s a decent track facility, and there are plenty of those around the country. Some would need changes if you’re going to have the Olympic Trials but obviously you’ve got several years of preparation to make the necessary improvements.
DP: Regarding the allergies, you may run into that problem in other areas besides Eugene. Despite the allergies, you see more and more world-class athletes locating there, including some from countries outside the U.S., so the problem can’t be that bad, number one. Secondly, true, you look at the attendance in some of those other cities such as Jim mentioned and those cities might, with the proper promotion, bring decent crowds, but they don’t have the knowledge, the enthusiasm, and the atmosphere that crowds do in Eugene because of the tradition of the sport there. And I think a damning factor is that in those cities mentioned there exists today no other strong meet. It’s disgraceful, but we don’t have a premier outdoor meet in LA, which was the center of the sport for a long time. In Sacramento there’s nothing, in New Orleans there’s nothing, in Indy there’s nothing. In Atlanta, which held the Trials in ’96, not only does the stadium not exist anymore but the sport at an elite level virtually does not exist anymore. I think Eugene is a natural place to go.
JD: The advent of Vinny Lananna and his apparently close connection with Nike has allowed Eugene to put on a great meet. But there are other places that can put on a good meet. There are good tracks that can be brought up to scratch pretty quickly all over the country. There are good and competent officials in a lot of places. As far as an enthusiastic crowd, that’s to a great degree a matter of promotion. Obviously, again, Eugene has a head start because of all the Trials it’s had, and because of all the athletes who train there going back to Steve Prefontaine. But as an example of what a city can do, I give you Boise, which staged the NCAA meet 10 or 15 years ago. You have to get the community behind you, but once you do that, here’s what Boise did: They started selling the meet the year before. They did lots of promotional things, for example suggesting that people give season tickets to the meet as Christmas presents. They had 35,000 people attend, the most ever up to that time for a four-day NCAA meet. What makes Eugene unique is they get a lot of other meets. I don’t think a city could build a track reputation with just one meet every four years.
DP: In theory, it’s not a bad idea to spread the Trials around geographically to foster growth, but in practice I’m not sure it would work. There’s some validity to that idea, but keep the Trials in Eugene and, to grow the sport, rotate the national championships around the country. There’s nothing better than competition. See what the other venues do with the opportunity, and if it turns out they do a great job and can rival Eugene then possibly they could take over the role of Eugene. But for right now I think Eugene provides the best atmosphere. Let’s hold our Olympic Trials, which is the second-best meet in the world in an Olympic year, in a venue that’s as top-class as the athletes competing in it. Eugene is the only choice.
JD: Dick, do you have a place to stay in Eugene right now?
DP: Not yet, but I’m working on it.
JD: Well, if you go to Sacramento, you’d find lots of hotels. That’s one of Eugene’s real shortcomings. In fact, in 2008 they were putting up some people as far away as Salem, which is 50, 60 miles up the road. It really is a consideration to have the Trials in a metropolitan area that has some amenities, especially hotels. We probably ought to have five or six cities in a mix, with people knowing where the meets were going to be, but the cities probably aren’t going to accept getting one national meet every five or six years. It’s business, and it needs to be ongoing. It’s a tough problem to figure out a way to apportion the cities other than the way they’ve always done it up until 2008. Of course, Sacramento felt very much that someone pulled a fast shuffle on them. They thought they had the inside track and picked up the next day’s paper and found out that Eugene had been awarded the Trials.Whatever you do, it should be totally open, and this wasn’t. Then it was followed by the fact that the CEO of USATF shortly after that left to go to work for guess who? Nike.
DP: Jim, I’d agree with you 100 percent that transparency is a great thing, and maybe there should have been more of it regarding the decision for the ’08 Trials.I’d also agree that it would be a lot better if Eugene had more hotel rooms, and maybe they’ll be getting some with the continued success of the Trials. However, I think that as the state of the sport stands right now, Eugene is far and away the best city to host the Trials. If we ever have tough competition among cities for this meet and nationals it would be an indication that the sport is in great shape. I just look around and am disappointed and depressed that in some other cities where the sport was centered for a while, there are no longer any major meets. Look at Indy. It’s the headquarters for the federation, the site of the ’88 Trials and some subsequent national championships, and I don’t even think that track could host a meet. The track has deteriorated and the interest in the city, which now hosts Super Bowls, is nil for track and field. You’ve got a good thing going in Eugene.
JD: One of the things we haven’t touched on at all is USATF’s role in soliciting cities. Let’s say that Nike is a lot of the reason that the meet is held in Eugene. Isn’t it possible that USATF could at least initiate talks at the highest level with say, Eli Lilly and Company, which has its headquarters in Indianapolis, by just dialing a local number? Lilly is a civic-minded sponsor. It’s up to USATF to make some of these overtures. Maybe USATF should be inviting some sports commissions out to Eugene to take a look at how it’s done. Max Siegel should make this a priority, so that we have some options.
DP: You bring up a good point. It will be interesting to see Max Siegel’s reaction to both the execution of the Trials in Eugene and the direction of the federation in pursuing the Trials in ’16 and beyond. Let’s hope he can create competition among cities to invigorate municipal sports commissions and corporations such as Lilly in Indianapolis and other major corporations in major cities to get them to embrace the sport and underwrite what it takes to stage a successful Trials. Again, I think the national championships could be dry runs or tests for cities and sponsors that aspire to host the Trials. Let’s hope we get great leadership on this and the sport grows. But right now the gold standard for hosting the Trials is Eugene.
JD: I’m sure—because Siegel has not been long associated with USATF—that he will be stunned with what he sees in Eugene. Doug Logan, Siegel’s predecessor, was very much surprised and amazed by what Eugene did in 2008. My point is that anyplace can be made an exciting venue. As far as the PR angle of being in a big, big city, you have to compete harder for attention but you are there, and generally get a lot of attention. I don’t think there’s any special advantage anymore to having the meet in New York City, though I think it would be a great place for the meet. I know a lot of people would come to New York to come to the Trials and do some other sightseeing, which you can do in Eugene only in a limited way. Once you’ve been to Crater Lake, that’s it.
DP: Hey, don’t forget Coos Bay, on the coast and the hometown of Steve Prefontaine. In the spirit of Pre, let’s take this discussion in a slightly different direction. Since the World Championships were first held in 1983, the U.S. has never been a host for the outdoor meet. Vin Lananna’s idea of Eugene hosting the meet in 2019 is great. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, including Eugene’s lack of hotel rooms, expanding the spectator capacity of Hayward Field, and securing the financing for the prize money and the international broadcast signal. What a coup for the U.S. and Eugene to get the meet. It will take a Herculean effort, but that’s what Lananna and Eugene are known for.
JD: That’s fine as long as Vinny and Eugene know it requires an awful lot of preparation. The IAAF tends to go where the money is. That’s why they’ve been having so many meets in Asia and the Middle East. Other countries are coming into the economic upper class and they’ll put up the dough to do it. Most of the governments are on board and the host cities have carte blanche. That won’t happen in the U.S. There are really impediments to having the meet in the U.S. in general and Eugene in particular. If you can figure out a lot of these things, you’ll impress the IAAF. The IAAF is still annoyed that the Home Depot Center outside of Los Angeles backed out of hosting the World Cup in 2006. There are many obstacles. It’s almost as difficult as an Olympic bid. If Phil Knight and Nike say they want to do this, Eugene will have a good chance to get the meet. But it will take a huge amount of financial backing.