Rain bounced off the Hayward Field track on Friday afternoon, the sun struggling to peek through ominous clouds hovering above one of the crown-jewel facilities on an Oregon campus dotted with them.
It was 57 degrees, nearly 15 below normal for the Willamette Valley, but no amount of weather seems to dampen the mood here, not even the sight of squeegee rollers pushing water from the track. This place prides itself as “Track Town USA.” Sacramento fancies itself as something of a track town, too, and the cities have hosted meets for decades.
Eugene and Sacramento have combined to host the U.S. Olympic Trials five times since 2000. Eugene is hosting the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships this weekend, a staple here. Scores of these qualifying collegians will head to Sacramento State for the USA Track & Field Championships from June 22-25.
Hornet Stadium will host seven Olympic champions in the strongest assemblage in the region since the 2004 Olympic Trials in what is billed as the biggest track event anywhere since last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
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Sacramento Sports Commission Director Mike Sophia has kept tabs on what’s happening in Eugene, joking that fans do not shiver in rain in Sacramento in June. Until this week.
“Just crazy,” he said with a laugh, adding, “the temperatures are getting back up to track-meet temperatures here really soon.”
Eugene and Sacramento will continue to bid for NCAA, U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials in a board-room rivalry. The economic boon is enormous. Hotels sell out. Restaurants and brew pubs pack them in. And the television market allows the world a view of the venues and cities, with the allure of track and field featuring a menu of options: runners, jumpers, hurdlers, vaulters, weight specialists.
“It’s been a competition for us for awhile with bids,” Sophia said. “We understand Eugene has a lot of history, a great place to run track. But so are we. It gets us fired up every day. We love the challenge. It keeps us on edge, but it’s fun.”
Tension will be part of the fun on June 25, the final day of the Sacramento event, when USA Track & Field officials vote on what city will be awarded the 2020 Olympic Trials. It’s down to Eugene, Sacramento and Walnut in Los Angeles County.
The sports commission is promoting a “sold-out Saturday” the day before the meeting to wow voters with a packed venue, to “let the track world know Sacramento is the best site for the next Olympic Trials,” said Sophia. “This is our rallying cry. We’re going to remind the committee that the 2000 and 2004 Trials did really well here with record sellouts.”
Vin Lananna is also a big thinker, an advocate for this sport for decades. He urges cities large and small to jump into the bidding arena. The one-time Stanford and Oregon track coach is the president of Track Town USA, a local organization, and he led the charge to have Eugene host the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008, 2012 and 2016 and to secure the World Outdoor Championships in 2021.
The U.S. men’s team coach for the 2016 Olympic Games, Lananna has a soft spot for Eugene, but he wants to broaden the bidding field, to widen the footprint of a sport that is in the shadow nationally of the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and, in some cases, college sports. He hopes the venue success of Eugene and Sacramento will be a model for the rest of the country for the U.S. Championships. The Bay Area, despite the population, has rarely been much of a player in this bidding competition.
“It’s all about what’s good for the sport,” Lananna said. “It’s great to see that the West Coast venues have stepped up. I am disappointed (about the lack of Bay Area bids). I wish it was different. I wish we had a bunch of cities, major global cities in this country that see the value of hosting the world’s No. 1 track and field team. I wish we could plop the championships down in the center of New York City, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles, that they see the value to this.”
He continued, “My view is we have to be sure that wherever the (Trials) are, the sport is thriving and remains healthy. Our sport is not big enough to have unhealthy (bidding) rivalries. I wish we had 10 cities competing for bids. It would be so good for our sport.”