FINALLY the World Championships came to America, nearly four decades after the first edition opened in Helsinki. Was it everything we had hoped for? In terms of what the athletes brought to the great stage, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
From stunning sweeps to scintillating new World Records, the athletes delivered both on the field and the track. The records themselves came in a stunning flurry over the final weekend, creating a finale that could not have been scripted better.
From the sublime magnificence of Sydney McLaughlin destroying her own 400H standard with a barrier-busting 50.68 (perhaps expected, but that fast?) to the stunning shock of Tobi Amusan’s 12.12 best over the sprint hurdles that had even some experts doubting the timing until she came up with a wind-aided 12.06 in the final, to Mondo Duplantis’s 20-4½ (6.21) vault as the meet’s exclamation mark, fans could only shake their heads in amazement.
Team USA, while weathering its share of disappointments along the way, rose to the occasion, delivering 3 men’s medal sweeps (100, 200, shot) and what has been heralded as a record total 33 medals (see chart). That topped the best of 31 set by East Germany in ’87, but — sticklers for accuracy that we are — it must be remembered with an asterisk, as this year’s total includes 6 medals from 4 events that weren’t even on the books in Rome — the mixed relay and the women’s pole vault, triple jump & hammer.
Of the 13 golds, 10 of them came in individual events, which means 10 Wild Cards for the United States in Hungary next year, in addition to whomever might win byes via the Diamond League route. Also note that U.S. field events have never looked better, with 12 medals won, topping the old record of 9 set in Doha. Much of that gain came in the women’s throws, with U.S. athletes on the podium for all four.
The United States, with more than 3 times the medals as the next three nations combined, was the obvious winner of WA’s first-ever official team championship (see “Last Lap”). In terms of points scored for the first 8 places, the U.S. set a record for the most-ever at 328 (M173/W155).
With no other superpower nation in track to compete against since the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that the Americans would win was a foregone conclusion. The real question becomes, was the team title simply a one-year sop for American TV audiences?
Will the many other nations that make decisions as part of World Athletics decide there’s not much point in offering a special award that only one nation is capable of winning? The answer is coming, most likely in Budapest next summer, or in Tokyo in ’25.
In any case, perhaps more than we even anticipated, U.S. athletes absolutely loved competing for medals on U.S. soil. Sure, familiar surroundings, familiar time zones, and familiar foods all played a part, but the biggest boost came from thousands of boisterous American fans.
Rai Benjamin said it best: “It’s amazing. The crowd goes crazy when they hear your name. It’s an amazing experience that we haven’t had because the Worlds are always in a different country.”
Yet it was Athing Mu who summed up the U.S. athletes’ experience with the crowd more succinctly: “It’s insane.”
Just how many fans? While the new Hayward Field couldn’t fit 30,000 fans—the capacity originally promised — numbers far outstripped the gloomy projections that came just a few weeks earlier when the USATF Championships were held on the same field in front of a skeleton crew of fans.
Organizers issued daily releases citing “ticketed persons total.” The cumulative total was 146,033 on hand for the 10-day festival of the sport, with spectators from all 50 states and nearly 40 nations. All told, 6 of the sessions were sold out. (See “Last Lap” for more on the spectator experience.)
The TV situation was just as good, with NBC reporting that the viewership surpassed numbers from all the previous Worlds.
And the weather — yes, it couldn’t be much better. Often hot but never oppressive, the conditions turned out to be very close to ideal. The number of clouds in the sky were likely outnumbered by the count of world-leading marks on the field. Stop the presses, let’s recalibrate that thought. The stadium designers’ decision to offer less shade from the sun on the arena’s east side than old Hayward’s rickety East Grandstand provided has played out as a massive fail for spectator enjoyment.
Of course, there were controversies, none bigger than the marketing disaster that was Devon Allen’s DQ from the 110-hurdle final. That furor promises to bring a new discussion to the sport’s false-start rules. It also should bring a much closer look at the equipment involved, as the huge quantity of reaction times under 0.115 was unprecedented, indicating a change in the calibration of the pressure-sensitive blocks or some other technical anomaly.
Yet, even with all the good news that came from that oval in Lane County, Oregon, the many lovers of this sport who are also concerned with driving it forward will not be content with this being a “one-and-done” milestone. Where the sport in the United States goes from here is indeed of paramount concern.
Recall when the meet was awarded to the United States, the sport’s leaders, both foreign and domestic, tabbed the event — then 6 years off (not counting the unforeseen pandemic postponement of a year) — as what would be the culmination of the rebirth of track & field as one of America’s major sports. It would cap years of marketing development and new meet creation that would give the sport a major transfusion of excitement in one of its most critical nations.
That didn’t happen. And in the tradition of the buck has to stop somewhere, it’s fair to say that the leadership of the sport failed us. Whether it be the lack of prioritization of this goal in the hallways of Monaco-based World Athletics, or the result of infighting and lack of focus at USA Track & Field, an organization that has had at its helm for the last decade a sports marketing professional, the truth is now they have moved the goalposts on us.
Their new mantra is that Eugene marked the start of the rebirth of the American sport, a renaissance that will culminate in Los Angeles in 6 years when the Olympic Games return to our shores.
According to Seb Coe, who has repeatedly made the point that World Athletics needs to begin focusing heavily on the U.S. market, Eugene is the beginning: “For the very first time, it gives us a real-time audit of what we’re up against. We’ll look at the viewing numbers. We’ll look at seats. We’ll look at stadium capacity. We’ll look at broadcast. We’ll look at the way it’s got covered, the penetration. But it’s a cluttered, complicated marketplace. It’s a tough nut to crack. It’s not been made easier by the fact that at a time when we probably should as a sport have been focusing on engagement and promoting the athletes, it didn’t happen in the way it should have been done.”
So while much work remains to be done, the sport’s fans can look back on this first World Outdoor Championships on U.S. soil as almost everything it should have been: exciting, inspirational and riveting. Thanks to the athletes, it was a hell of a show.
|Click Here For A Listing Of Medalists With Links To Reports On Each Event|
A Record Medal Haul For Team USA
|* = includes mixed relay medal|