Oregon's track-and-field heritage gets an update
By Blaine Newnham
Special to The Seattle Times
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DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Oregon's Hayward Field, pictured above, will be the site of the 2008 U.S. Olympic track-and-field trials. Oregon will also host a yearly world-class meet.
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Maybe you can go home.
It was reassuring to me that Eugene, Ore., was named to host our country's next Olympic track-and-field trials, a 10-day prelude in 2008 to the Beijing Games.
I thought track was passe at Oregon, but, like rowing at Washington, it is too much a part of the fabric of the place to be lost, even if it doesn't pay its own way.
As sports editor of the Eugene Register-Guard, I wrote columns and supervised coverage of the trials in 1972, 1976 and 1980 at Hayward Field, when Jim Ryun made the team and Marty Liquori didn't.
When Dave Wottle lost his cap, Garry Bjorklund his shoe, and Steve Prefontaine his innocence, rounding the last turn of the 5,000 meters as the sports version of James Dean while clad in the first pair of competitive Nikes.
Many die-hard track-and-field folks consider the 1972 meet to be the best track meet of all time.
But that, like me, is ancient history, a time long ago in the '70s when a dual track meet between Oregon and Kansas was more anticipated than a football game between Oregon and almost anybody else.
Hayward Field was track and field's Carnegie Hall, a "Chariots of Fire," Ebbets Field kind of place, where the crowd intuitively knew when a runner was on record pace.
Eugene held its last trials in 1980 with typical enthusiasm, even though President Jimmy Carter had already announced a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Eugene gave the athletes a sendoff, even if there was no place to go.
But the city hadn't made a bid for the Olympic trials since 1992, which was just about the time that football became worth watching.
The Ducks went to a Rose Bowl, expanded Autzen Stadium to 60,000. In one season, they won both the Pac-10 football and basketball championships.
Perhaps there wasn't room enough for football, basketball and track. The Ducks pretty much quit fielding a dual-meet team in the '90s as scholarships shrunk and Martin Smith tried to replace Pre's coach, Bill Dellinger.
Smith's falling-out with Oregon's past was so serious that former world marathon record holder Alberto Salazar coached his Portland prodigy, Galen Rupp, rather than let him run for Smith.
Last spring, just before the start of track season, Smith resigned under pressure. A cadre of assistant coaches guided the Ducks to the men's Pac-10 championship as Rupp enrolled at Oregon.
Then, this summer, Bill Moos, the Oregon athletic director who had hired Smith, made a bold move to replace him. Moos hired Vin Lananna, the athletic director at Oberlin College who previously had won five NCAA team track titles at Stanford. And had a reputation for coaching distance runners.
Moos offered Lananna a package that could be worth $600,000 per year.
What was Moos doing?
He was keeping the old boys happy, among them Nike founder Phil Knight.
Moos recognized that Oregon's heritage was worth updating, Hayward Field worth saving, Prefontaine and Bill Bowerman worth remembering, the Olympic trials worth going after. Track had been good to Eugene and could be again.
With Lananna up front and Nike in the background, the Oregon Track Club presented a bid for the trials that included $2.5 million worth of improvements to Hayward Field, adding a second world-class meet each year, and money to pay the top eight finishers at the trials, not just the top five.
The presentation that seemed to turn the tide in Eugene's favor came from former distance star, Rudy Chapa.
The boys were back.
"That's hallowed ground," said Craig Masback, head of the U.S. Track and Field Association in awarding the meet to Eugene over Sacramento, Calif. He was talking about Hayward Field, where he had competed as a distance runner.
"Meaning no disrespect to anyone," wrote Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, "but the USTFA seems to think the late, iconic runner Steve Prefontaine and the Oregon running scene of Nike mythology are still alive.
Breton called the past two trials, in 2000 and 2004 in Sacramento, the most successful in the country's history. The American Medical Association convention would serve the same purpose.
In Eugene, the meet is about the love of a sport, an appreciation that created victory laps, that made rhythmic clapping before a jump or a vault appropriate.
While crowds of more than 20,000 were announced in a makeshift football stadium in Sacramento, and the warm weather delighted sprinters, last year's meet had little of the sweetness or drama of Eugene. And there was no comparison in intimacy and involvement of the crowds.
Sacramento thinks Nike money persuaded the USTFA to return to its roots. Maybe it did. Nike paid for Eugene's presentation, and will spend at least $1 million on the new meet to be held every year.
The lingering hope is to make track and field again something that happens more than just every four years before and during the Olympics.
If that was the goal, then Eugene is the place.