Tim Layden

Fred Kerley stakes his claim to Usain Bolt’s throne in Eugene


EUGENE, Oregon – It is accepted in track and field, both in silence and aloud, that there will likely never be another Usain Bolt. There will never be an athlete with Bolt’s ethereal combination of speed, presence and joy. Never another with Bolt’s relentless seizure of moments and of history. Never another with his ability to hoist a niche (being kind here) sport, throw it across his shoulders – or clench it in his radiant smile like a pirate’s scabbard – and make it not just relevant, but viral. He ran faster than any human, more gleefully than should be allowed, and pulled an entire ecosystem along in his slipstream. He was a unicorn.

On the other hand, never is a long time. Track and field did not stop contesting meets or 100- and 200-meter races when Bolt left to start a family of children with weather-themed names. Bolt has been gone for half a decade; his last races were at the 2017 World Championships, and they were not pretty. Two years later, Christian Coleman of the U.S. took the world title, decisively, in 9.76 seconds. He was a short, explosive sprinter in mold of 2000 Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene, and he was just 23 years old. There was much promise. But subsequently Coleman got sideways with the doping police (three whereabouts failures, meaning he did not test positive but missed too many tests), was suspended for two years, and missed the 2021 Olympics. (He is back, but keep reading).

The post-Bolt 100 meters was left adrift, missing the big man and not just his schtick, but his speed. Missing a logical successor. Italian Marcell Jacobs was the longshot winner of the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, and bless his Texas-born heart, Jacobs will never buy another bottle of wine in his country, but he was not the heir to Bolt’s greatness. He was a one-off, entertaining and perfect on the day when it mattered most, but perhaps never again. Track was left still searching – turning over rocks in the wood, to find only moss and mud.

Until now. Maybe. Not that it has discovered another Bolt, but perhaps another unicorn. (Hold the eyerolls and stay with me). Perhaps a worthy king, if not a worthy successor.

On Saturday night at the new Hayward Field, Day Two of the 18th World Track and Field Championships and the first in the United States, 27-year-old Fred Kerley – just three years ago one of the best 400-meter runners in the world, until improbably dropping down to the 100 meters last year (and winning Olympic silver) – won the 100-meter final in a time of 9.86 seconds. He was just .02 seconds in front of two other U.S. sprinters, silver medalist Trayvon Bromell and bronze medalist Marvin Bracy. It was the first 1-2-3 100-meter sweep at the worlds since 1991, when Americans Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell pulled off the sweep. The U.S. had also swept the medals at the first worlds in 1983, with Lewis, Calvin Smith and Emmit King.

In an interview on the track, broadcast to the near-capacity crowd, Kerley shouted, “We said we were gonna do it, and we did it. USA, baby.”

Kerley is big (6-foot-3 ½) like Bolt (6-foot-5). He is, for the moment, nearly unbeatable, like Bolt, although not really like Bolt yet. Kerley is fast, and while not as fast as Bolt’s best times, he seems poised to challenge Tyson Gay’s 13-year-old American record of 9.69 in a competition without exhausting rounds. At the very least, Kerley has earned the title of world’s fastest human; at the very most, he has the potential to earn much more. As for showmanship, that might take some time; as effusive as Bolt was, that is how taciturn Kerley is. That would not matter in some sports, but it matters in track and field, where TV ratings cannot thrive on performance alone. But stay tuned. There were signs that this, too, could change, right after the race. (And it is notable that Bolt’s manager, Ricky Simms, is also Kerley’s manager. “They communicate all the time,” says Simms. “Usain has really been a great mentor to Fred.”)

Kerley came into the race a heavy favorite. He has been the dominant 100-meter runner in the world since last year’s Olympics and ran the world’s best of 9.76 at the U.S. Championships in June. He matched that time in Friday night’s heats here.

He was less dominant in the final. Kerley broke from the blocks in lane four, stride with Bracey in three, and they ran nearly in lockstep for 90 meters before Kerley snatched a sliver of daylight and then leaned cautiously, chest forward, arms wide, like a man trying to savor a summer breeze on a warm evening. He had beaten Bracey narrowly, though clearly. But far out in lane eight, running blind, Bromell had left Coleman – back in the game after his suspension – behind and closed furiously to nearly catch Kerley at the line.

Kerley applied the brakes, came to a full stop in the middle of the turn and stared up at the giant video board, as if willing his name to appear first. It did. Kerley threw both hands into the air, and a meet worker draped his gold medal around his neck. And then Kerley snagged the medal from around his neck and alighted on a delirious victory lap, slapping hands with front-row spectators and waving his arms while the medal’s cloth lanyard dangled toward the ground. It seemed his lap was nearly in the 43-second range that he had once run, and the display was, dare we say, Bolt-esque.

“I was talking about that before that race,” said Kerley. “Thinking about, ‘What should I do?’ Then I decided I would do that. Man, in my position in life, where I come from, it’s a blessing every day to wake up and breathe. So I’m thankful for that. And I’m thankful for this gold medal.” Hold that thought.

Bracy’s silver was his first global medal; Bromell’s was his first since 2015, when he was third in the worlds in Beijing. He subsequently twice tore his Achilles tendon, potentially ending his career. On the track Saturday night, he cried openly. “Tears of joy,” he said. “First medal in seven years. So yeah, tears of joy.” As to racing in lane eight, Bromell said, “Not to throw shade, but I wish I had been next to those guys. I might have timed my lean a little differently.” That sounded like shade. “Nah,” said Bromell. “Those are my guys.”

Kerley said he never saw Bromell. “Me and my lane,” he said.

As to Kerley referencing where he came from, that would be Taylor, Texas, a town of about 15,000, 35 miles northeast of Austin. Kerley was raised by an aunt in a home with 13 cousins and little means. He played football and basketball and ran track in high school, but didn’t devote serious training time to sprinting until his senior in high school, when a broken collarbone curtailed his football season and shortened basketball’s. “So I started running track more seriously,” Kerley told Track and Field News in 2019. “I didn’t have the greatest times.” He split 46.9 on a relay, which is actually not shabby, but might seem slow in his rearview mirror.

Kerley went to junior college and in 2014, made his first trip to Eugene, for USA Nationals. According to U.S. team chiropractor Josh Glass, who is close with Kerley, Kerley flew to Portland, took a bus to Eugene, ran poorly and ran out of money, subsisting on popcorn, and then bummed a ride back to Portland. Simms says, “If Fred seems hesitant to open up, it’s because he’s not quick to trust people because of the way he’s lived a lot of his life.”

But he got faster. He transferred to Texas A&M, where in 2017, he ran 43.70 to break 1992 Olympic gold medalist Quincy Watts’ collegiate record.

He made the world team that summer and finished seventh in London. Two years later he took a bronze medal in the worlds in Doha and a ran a personal best of 43.64 seconds, sixth-fastest ever by an American. He seemed assured of a lucrative career in an event the U.S. has long dominated. Then came the pandemic lull, and a gradual return. Kerley began running 100s and 200s, while never disavowing the 400. A year ago, he ran 9.78 and finished third at the Olympic Trials and took a silver medal (beyond Jacobs) in the Gamers. His transition was complete.

He became one of those athletes who comes to track and field greatness not in a straight line, but through a maze of trial and error, finding success in one event, only to find more success in another one.

U.S. women’s shot putter Chase Ealey, 27 years old like Kerley, is another one. Early in her high school career she was a champion sprinter and thrower, only to later emphasize the shot and eventually to make that her main event. (It is not as strange a shift as it might seem – both sprints and throws require explosive power. “A lot of throwers were sprinters,” Ealey said before the meet). On Saturday night, 15 minutes before Kerley folded himself into the blocks, she became the first American woman to win a world outdoor championship in the shot (Michelle Carter won three medals as well as the Olympic gold medal in 2016). Track and field has always been a something-for-everyone sport, occasionally in the same athlete.

It’s important to emphasize: Sprinters often move up in distance, as sharpness fades and speed endurance becomes more accessible than pure 100-meter explosives. They rarely move down. They even more rarely move down from excellence in the 400 to even greater excellence in the 100. “Maybe way back in history,” says NBC’s Ato Boldon. “Not in modern times that I can think of.” (A note here: Bolt was strictly a 200-meter runner early in his career, until he dropped down to the 100 in 2008 and twice broke the world record and won Olympic gold. So there is that, and it was stunning at the time, and in retrospect, stripped of what Bolt did afterward, still is).

Kerley’s range is stunning: He is one of only three men to run sub-10 for the 100 meters, sub-20 for the 200 meters and sub-44 for the 400 meters. The others are Michael Norman of the U.S. and 400-meter world record holder Wayne Van Niekerk of South Africa. Notably, both of them remain 200 to 400 specialists, while Kerley now owns the 100 and will also run the 200 meters here, a pure sprinter.

And as darkness fell on Eugene, the best in the world, next in the line of succession.

Allyson Felix retires with unmistakably historic legacy

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EUGENE, Oregon – The moment was both majestic, and at the same time lacking in appropriate majesty. Majestic, because the athlete was Allyson Felix, at 36 years old, the most decorated woman ever in track and field, running the last competitive lap of her life and adding yet another medal to the heaviest collection in the sport’s long history. Lacking in majesty, because the event was the second leg on a mixed 4×400-meter relay on the first night of the 18th Track and Field World Championships, but the first in Felix’s home country, in a city where she could apply to receive mail, because she has raced here so often and so brilliantly. And because the United States won a bronze medal, not gold, a minor quibble in the end.

Felix’s last dance began at a tick before 7:51 Pacific Daylight Time Friday night, when she snatched a white relay baton out of the hand of U.S. leadoff runner Elijah Goodwin, who – requisite perspective in any Felix tale – was four years old when Felix competed in her first Worlds, in 2003 in Paris. The crowd at Eugene’s new Hayward Field (which was not full for the first night session of the competition, which may or may not be an ominous sign) roared ever louder in response. Felix was required to stay in lane 6 around one turn, and then floated through small rays on sunlight at the top of the backstretch before cutting into the rail with a 20-meter lead.

Felix stayed in first down the backstretch and around the final turn, but in the homestretch was decisively caught and passed by Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic. This was not a surprise: Paulino is the fastest woman in the world this year in the 400 meters, with a best of 49.49 seconds (only .23 seconds slower than Felix’s decade-old career best). Felix best open 400 this year is 50.71. Paulino split a blazing 48.47 for her leg; Felix ran 50.15, more than respectable. Felix passed the stick to Vernon Norwood (the mixed relay mandates a male-female-male-female order for all teams), who ran Team USA back into the lead before passing to anchor Kennedy Simon, who held the lead into the final 50 meters before she was passed by Fiordaliza Cofil of the Domincan Republic (49.92 split) and Femke Bol of the Netherlands (48.95 split). Simon’s split was 50.90; her season’s best is 50.45.

“It was an emotional day,” Felix said afterward. She said that during the afternoon, she found herself overwhelmed. “There was a point, earlier today,” she said, “where I just started breaking down. [Her brother/agent] Wes came over and hugged me and talked to me. But once I got to the track, I got into my routine.”

Yet still: “It was just a night to be grateful,” she said. “All the messages I got. Just hearing how much people thought I meant to the sport. And then tonight, it really was a special night.”

She also noted that she went into the stands to hug her daughter, Cammy. “She told me I was sweaty,” said Felix. Then a laugh.

It is rare in her long career that Felix has been asked to elevate a moment, because the moments in which she has thrived did not need elevating. They were already at the highest level – Olympic and World individual and traditional relay finals. National championships. She has been swimming in the deepest water in her sport since she was 17 years old, rising to meet moments halfway, sometimes winning and sometimes not, always leaving no effort unspent. “I hope I’ll be remembered as a fierce competitor,” said Felix at a Thursday press conference, nearly her last among hundreds.

She will be remembered for that. And for much more. For her 11 Olympic medals, dating back to 2004, when she was just 18, one more than the legendary Carl Lewis and more than any other American track and field athlete; two more than Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey’s old record for most Olympic track and field medals by a woman. For her World Championship medals, of which Friday night’s was her 19th, and 13th gold, both more than any other athlete – male or female — in history (Usain Bolt and Ottey each won 14). For winning a grinding and painful 400-meter bronze last year in Tokyo, after the November, 2018 birth of her daughter by caesarean section, 32 weeks into a difficult pregnancy. (She had previously won two post-childbirth relay medals at the 2019 Worlds in Doha, after just 10 months). For finding a strident voice on important issues late in her career, after many years of quietly getting along, and stirring no pots.

(We can expect more of this: In the April Instagram post that announced her retirement, Felix said she is “running for women,” this year, and also that her retirement plans will include trying to “make the world a better place for women.” At Thursday’s press conference, Felix said, “I’m trying to leave the sport better than I found it, trying to support female athletes and women in general and fight for more equality.”)

But there is something else, too, that makes Friday night the perfect coda for Felix’s career and, in a larger sense, for this moment in track and field. Since running at her first Worlds in 2003, Felix has always been there. Even with all those medals, Felix has persistently been great, but never dominant in a single event. Her gold medals were hard-earned, nearly every time, and her silvers gutting. (Veronica Campbell Brown of Jamaica beat her in the 200 meters at two Olympics – 2004 and 2008 — leaving Felix in puddles; Shaunae Miller-Uibo threw herself across the line in 2016, winning gold in the 400 meters and leaving Felix with silver. More puddles).

Right now, and for a long time, track and field historians, fans and aficionados will comb through Felix’s career and seek the touchstone moment with which to describe her excellence. The pitchy summary or tight sound bite. It will be the medals, and the times, too – she retires as the eighth-fastest woman in history in the 200 meters (21.69 in 2012) and the 21st-fastest woman in 400 meters (49.26 to win the world title in 2015). She is not the fastest American in either event. And all of that is fine, and important, and worthwhile. It all misses the most important point, too.

As great as Felix has been, as inspirational – USA heptathlete Anna Hall recalled having a Felix poster on her wall as a teenager – as she has been, she has done something more remarkable and more quietly. For nearly two decades, she has shown up. That sentence is not typed lightly. For nearly two decades she has been an earnest and professional presence who never cheated an audience or herself.

We live in a world that feeds off superlatives: Greatest. Fastest. Strongest. Best. G.O.A.T. (ugh). Felix has been all of them, but she also has been present in a sport that desperately needs presence.

She is surrounded, in her athletic dotage, by younger teammates who have sought to brand themselves by the force of a handful of performances, or less. Felix’s brand was built, race by race, year by year, until it was unmistakably historic. She was a volume shooter in a sport often populated by one-hit wonders. That will be her legacy.

But let the record show that her competitiveness did not yield to her emotions on this last night. “I was determined to enjoy this year,” Felix said. “But yeah, it would have been great if this medal was gold.” Pause. “But I’m not going to dwell on that at all,” she said. “I’m proud.”

Once again: Earned.

Track and field worlds come to Eugene: An unlikely alliance six decades in the making

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On the evening of Friday, Aug. 23, 1968, some of the most accomplished track and field athletes in the United States gathered for a meet at Hayward Field, a nearly half-century old facility on a corner of the University of Oregon campus in the small city of Eugene, which then had a population just under 75,000. The meet had no official name – news accounts at the time called it a “Pre-Olympic meet” or a “twilight” meet. Marketing was not what it would become. Jim Ryun, world record holder in the mile and 1,500 meters, was there. Lee Evans, who six weeks later in Mexico City would win the 400-meter gold medal and set a world record that would last 20 years, was there, too. It was a cool night, with temperatures in the low 60s. Dark clouds tracked across the sky and intermittently spilled raindrops onto the hard cinder track.

The final track event was the 10,000 meters, featuring Gerry Lindgren of Washington State. Lindgren, 22, was already a mythic figure in track and field. Just a month after his high school graduation in 1964, the 5-foot-6, 118- pound Lindgren had run two older Russians off their feet to win the 10k at a 1964 Cold War dual meet in front of more than 50,000 sweltering fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum; he went on to finish ninth, while injured, in the Tokyo Olympic 10,000 meters (won by American Billy Mills). Lindgren came to Eugene still recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and hoping to make the ’68 Olympic Team at a second Trials meet two weeks later in Echo Summit, California. (He had dropped out of the 10k at the first Trials, in Los Angeles).

Lindgren’s primary competition would likely come from 24-year-old Ken Moore, a Eugene native and former Oregon runner who had made the Olympic team in the marathon a week earlier. (And who later, as Kenny Moore, would have a stellar career as a Sports Illustrated writer, screenwriter, and author). There were about 8,000 spectators at Hayward – they would favor Moore but respect Lindgren – and embrace the moment. Both men were hoping to hit the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 29 minutes flat.

Among those in the grandstand that evening were two Oregon cross country and track recruits: Incoming freshman Pat Tyson from Tacoma, Washington; and rising high school senior Steve Prefontaine from the coastal fishing town of Coos Bay, Oregon. They were sitting together in the fading light as Lindgren, in his style, dropped the hammer early and opened up a 10-second lead on Moore. Rain fell harder. Cars along the backstretch turned on their headlights to illuminate the track, which was unlighted. Resolutely, Moore ate into Lindgren’s lead. The two men were cut from the same cloth: Lindgren ran more than 200 miles a week as a teenager and would never yield; Moore, who would later become a colleague and friend of mine, once told me, after performing a mind-boggling set of pull-ups on a soccer goal during a detour on a light jog, “The one thing I could always do was red-line.” Two non-quitters, refusing to quit. All around Tyson and Prefontaine, the crowd stomped rhythmically on bleachers, made of Oregon timber. The kids were enthralled.

“I had goose bumps,” says Tyson, who went on to become a high school coach and is now the director of track and cross country at Gonzaga. “There’s Lindgren out there wearing his WSU jersey, and Kenny is catching him foot by foot, meter by meter, and the Olympics are coming. The stomping on the bleachers got louder and louder as they were coming up to the bell.”

Years later, Moore, who died at age 78 on May 4, would recall the race in his biography of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, Bowerman And The Men of Oregon, and write, “On the last backstretch, I give it everything I had and drove into the lead. Gerry stuck right with me around the turn and up the homestretch. I beat Lindgren for the first time, by two feet.” (Both finished just under 29 minutes, but neither made the Olympic team in the 10,000. Moore ran the Olympic marathon and finished 11th).

Tyson felt wasted from the emotion of the race, like something ethereal. He looked over at Prefontaine and saw the face of the converted. “His eyes,” says Tyson. “They were just huge. What a night that was.” The two teenagers walked into the night together, tethered forever – one more than the other, in a public sense — to a place they had barely known just minutes earlier. Something had happened to them that night, something which would endure, and which thousands of others would experience.

Beginning on Friday and for 10 days and nights, Eugene will host the 18th World Track and Field Championships, a statement of fact that falls hopelessly short of capturing its implausibility. In the more than five decades since Pat Tyson and Steve Prefontaine watched Moore run down Lindgren, Eugene has grown steadily to a population of nearly 175,000 residents, which is nevertheless more than 400,000 fewer than the next-smallest of the other 17 cities to host the Worlds (Gothenburg, Sweden in 1995: pop. 590,000). It’s likely there are tens of millions of non-running, non-college football/Sabrina Ionescu-fan Americans who could not locate Eugene – or, possibly Oregon – on an unmarked map.

The old track on the corner of Agate Street and 15th Ave. was periodically expanded and propped up, (and deservedly cherished, even in its dotage), but in 2018 was demolished altogether – controversially then, and still, to a lesser degree – and replaced by a $200 million Starship Enterprise funded largely through private donations by billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight and others near his tax bracket. It is a breathtaking facility (with some flaws, like a gorgeous “roof” that doesn’t protect many spectators from rain or sun). Former Oregon track coach, TrackTown USA CEO and Eugene 2022 impressario (in absentia) Vin Lananna purposefully calls, it “our national stadium.”

In one very real sense, these Eugene Worlds are long overdue: The United States has been the world’s foremost track and field power since the inception of the modern Olympics and, excepting a brief period at the height of Eastern Bloc athletic ambition (and chicanery) and the career of Usain Bolt, it has not been close. U.S. athletes have won 381 World Championship medals, more than double any other nation (Kenya, 151; Russia, 142; Jamaica, 127; and so on). Through a murky bid process, Worlds have been contested not only in such international capitals as Rome, Paris, Moscow and Beijing, but also in Daegu, South Korea (2011) and Doha, Qatar. The Worlds have long belonged someplace in the United States, and in that sense, this is a time for self-congratulation and celebration.

On the other hand, how that someplace became a small city in the Pacific Northwest is less a story, and more a dream, the type of which is vivid in real time and murky upon waking. There is no relationship in American sports like track and field and Eugene, a marriage in which an entire athletic enterprise is defined by one location. (Penn Relays? Sorry. Great event. One weekend is not enough). Again, Lananna: “Eugene has been the spiritual home of American track and field for a long time.”

There is no definitive timeline to measure Eugene’s takeover of what was once the pre-eminent of all Olympic sports. (Not so much anymore, but still among the most important). It is a story in small pieces, across six decades of Americana. It is one visionary coach, and then another, many years later. It is an icon who died young, but who has never really left. It is six Olympic Trials. It is a passionate local fan base of uncertain endurance — long of tooth, grey of hair. It is, perhaps, most of all, a diminished sport (like so many), and one city that kept the front porch light on when many others with far more resources did not.

“There are people who complain that Eugene is too small and too remote,” says Tom Jordan, a Stanford graduate who moved to Eugene in 1982 with affection for the community’s love of running and track and field and was the meet director of the esteemed Prefontaine Classic from 1985-2021. “Nobody is stopping other cities from doing what Eugene has done.” (This a verifiably true). “Without Eugene,” says Jordan, “the sport of track and field would be in the wilderness.” (Also likely true, but some would argue track and field is in the wilderness anyway). There will be fresh issues beyond July 24, when the Worlds end; the story is not over.

That story began with Bowerman. A native of Portland and a 1934 graduate of the University of Oregon, Bowerman served in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II and received a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars. He took over the Oregon track program in 1948 and would eventually coach 64 All-Americas and 33 Olympians. But the program became a national power, and Eugene a destination, in the 1960s.The Ducks won four NCAA team titles from 1964-72, and Hayward hosted its first NCAA Championship meet in 1962, and seven more before the turn of the century. The local populace embraced track and field. “Dual meets were broadcast on the radio,’’ says Tyson. “How crazy is that?” Pretty crazy. Bowerman is remembered as a coach, but he was equally — perhaps more — skilled at promotion.

The foot-stomping fanaticism was already firmly in place when Prefontaine arrived in the fall of 1969, but his presence, personality and performance (and many other qualities not beginning with the letter p) created an aura unlike any track athlete until Bolt. Prefontaine raced fearlessly, and at one time held every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. After leaving Oregon in 1973, he became a tireless advocate for the professionalization of track and field (seemingly a quaint legacy, but a pitched battle at the time). Nothing solidified Prefontaine’s legacy more than his death, in a one-car crash on a winding hillside rode above Eugene, on May 30, 1975. (Prefontaine’s blood alcohol content was above the legal limit).

Prefontaine’s greatness, already established, was also unfulfilled; he was just 24 at the time of his death. During the 2012 Olympic Trials, I visited “Pre’s Rock,” the solemn, but also vaguely discomfiting site of Prefontaine’s crash on Skyline Drive, where visitors stand, pray and leave running-themed totems, and wrote a story for SI.com about the quasi-religious experience. I interviewed a 25-year-old male runner who said, “He was such a great runner. But the thing that really elevated him was the What If? There’s no period at the end…” James Dean. Jimi Hendrix. Others.

In life, and in death, Prefontaine was powerfully intertwined with the substance of track and field in America and with the aura of Eugene. But so much time has passed. Jordan, who was a writer for Track and Field News when he first came to Eugene, wrote Prefontaine’s biography , but says now: “Pre’s been dead almost 50 years. I think that part is over.”

But is it? Tyson, who has been coaching and recruiting young distance runners since shortly after Prefontaine’s death, says, “There’s not an elite high school distance runner who doesn’t know Pre.”

It’s poignant. But also odd, with a whiff of desperation. Nobody knows this better than Linda Prefontaine, 68, who was born three years after Steve and lived in Eugene from 1973-2017, before moving back to Coos Bay. “When you come to Eugene, you’ll see his face everywhere, still young,” says Linda. “And I’m happy that he still inspires people. But he was my big brother and now it feels like he’s my little brother in the picture, never getting older.” (Of note: Linda takes people on visits to various Pre-related sites in Coos Bay, called the Tour de Pre). All of this is complicated but Steve Prefontaine has remained a portion of whatever Eugene is to track and field; the amount of that portion is uncertain (and dependent on factors such as one’s age and, quite possibly, one’s race, as Prefontaine was a white hero in a sport with significant and essential Black representation).

Eugene hosted Olympic Trials in 1972, ’76 and ’80, but afterward the sport moved on. To Los Angeles (for the ’84 Trials and the wildly successful ’84 Olympics), to Indianapolis, to New Orleans, to Atlanta, to Sacramento. It seemed possible that whatever magic Eugene had possessed had run out of steam. But two things happened: One, none of those other cities dug deep roots – their Trials-hosting was a dalliance with the sport. Two, Lananna came to Oregon (he had previously been at Dartmouth and Stanford) and brought big ideas. “The goal was to let Hayward Field re-invent itself as the touchstone for track and field in the United States.”

Under Lananna, from 2005-12, the Oregon program flourished again, but that ultimately is inside baseball and would have gone unnoticed outside the sport’s high walls. Lananna had bigger plans that unfolded both during his tenure at Oregon and after it ended. “The goal was to create an infrastructure that made Eugene not the spiritual home of track and field in America,” says Lananna, “but also the physical home of track and field.” This was a big swing, that produced mostly hits and some misses, but a steady march forward.

Lananna was essential in bringing the 2008, ’12, and ’16 Olympic Trials back to Hayward Field, and all three were wildly successful, with a passel of Hayward Moments. Nike and Knight were essential too, with significant financial support of those Trials and the sport in Eugene and at large, a relationship that has been beneficial to track and field, but viewed by some as monopolistic. (Disclaimer: Nike has been a business partner to NBC Sports in track and and field and Olympic broadcasts.) Lananna also helped land the 2016 Indoor World Championships and conceived the 2016 Summer Series for post-collegiate runners seeking an alternative to European meets; according to reporting by respected Oregon writer Ken Goe, neither was financially successful.

The Worlds were Lananna’s white whale. He had been involved with Stanford’s bid for the 1999 Worlds (which went to Seville, Spain) and never lost his vigor for that cause, although the path was not smooth (these things rarely are). Eugene bid for the 2019 edition and lost to Doha. In 2015 at the World Athletics Convention in Beijing, the 2021 (postponed to this year by the global pandemic) Worlds were awarded to Eugene without a formal bid process, cause for celebration in Oregon and the U.S., disappointment in Gothenburg (which had hoped to present a bid for the event) and surprise worldwide.

In January of 2018, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department was investing global sports corruption and considering racketeering, money laundering and fraud charges, in particular relating to the 2019 Doha and 2021 Eugene bids. It was an ominous story. Under pressure, Lananna took a leave of absence from his position as president of USA Track and Field, an unpaid civilian position with little power, and was interviewed by the Justice Department. Former World Athletics president Lamine Diack was tried and in September, 2020, found guilty of corruption, although not related to the Eugene bid. Diack died in December of 2021. No charges have been brought relating specifically to Eugene. “It went nowhere,” says Lananna. “Everything we did was appropriate.”

Lananna left Eugene in 2018, and is now the head coach of track and field and cross country at Virginia. He was not a part of the final three years of preparation for the Worlds or the stadium that will host them. There is, however, little doubt that his vision and persistence created the ecosystem in which both exist. He was the person who revived what Bowerman birthed and what Prefontaine and his acolytes nurtured.

It is sensible to ask what becomes of track and field, and its de facto American home, after these World Championships. “The big question now,” says Lananna, “is what happens after July 25? What happens when the circus leaves town?” The next Summer Olympics are in Paris in 2024, and four years after that, in Los Angeles. “This is a jump start,” says Lananna. “We have six years to grow the sport of track and field in this country, to make household names out of our stars. We have a beautiful national stadium.” (That term).

The macro question is challenging. All Olympic sports struggle to prosper with the crumbs left behind by the NFL, college football and the NBA, the 800-pound gorillas who dominate sports viewing (and nowadays, legal wagering) in America. Whether Eugene remains the vortex of that struggle for track and field is more pointed issue. Attendance at events in the new Hayward Field has been disappointing, including a daily average of 3,326 for the USATF championships in late June. “The theory was, if we build it, they will come,” says Linda Prefontaine. “But they aren’t coming.” That’s harsh, but not inaccurate. But to be fair, Eugene is hosting many big meets in 2022, and fans could be waiting to spend their money on the biggest of them. And there is the issue with the “roof,” which provides minimal cover in a locale with weather extremes. Evening sessions for the Worlds are not sold out , but most nearly so. Capacity pitched to World Athletics was 30,000, but that was an unrealistic promise based on significant temporary expansion that has not happened: Official seating capacity is just under 13,000 and a full house would be in the 15,000-17,000 range. Still, it is hard to imagine anything less than a charged atmosphere for what is always a spectacular show for track fans.

The future? Mount San Antonio College (“Mount SAC” in the track world) in Walnut, California, won the bid for the 2020 Olympic Track and Field Trials, but USATF pulled that award in 2018, citing  uncertainty relating to a lawsuit challenging the use of bond money to improve the Mount SAC facility, a stunning decision. The 2020 Trials (moved to 2021) went back to Eugene; 2024 has not yet been awarded. It’s not difficult to understand how track and field could benefit from broader exposure of its biggest events. Whether it happens is unknown.

What is known is the present, and that on Friday evening in the Willamette River Valley of central Oregon, in the small city of Eugene, in a stadium that shines in the twilight, a little miracle will unfold. Runners will run, jumpers will jump, throwers will throw. Noise will rise into the sky, a modern sound. And also the unmistakable echo of feet stomping on wooden timbers from a distant past.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.