If the 2024 Games eventually come to the United States the Olympic flame will be making its way to California, rather than Oregon. But the latter state is about to revive its own honoured sporting flame - two decades after it died down to embers - as it prepares to host the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) World Indoor Championships.
The first occasion on which this biennial event has been contested in the United States since the inaugural meeting at Indianapolis in 1987 offers Oregon, and in particular Portland, the chance to add a significant and long-awaited chapter to its own vibrant history of indoor athletics.
Just 100 miles south of the host city on the I-5 Pacific Highway, Eugene can boast a proud record on the outdoor track at Hayward Field which, since 1975, has hosted the annual Prefontaine Classic.
That meeting, of course, was named in honour of Steve Prefontaine, whose hopes of improving on the fourth place he earned in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 metres final were tragically ended when he died on May 30, 1975, aged 24, after crashing his MGB convertible on Skyline Boulevard near his alma mater of the University of Oregon.
The vivid deeds of this product of Coos Bay were writ across the athletics world, but Prefontaine’s exploits close to home, at the annual Oregon Indoor Invitational meeting within Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, remain legend.
The Oregon Invitational - which ran from 1961 to 1996 - was established under the direction of Bill Bowerman, the head coach at the University of Oregon whose athletes included, in time, Prefontaine. And from the word go, the atmosphere at the venue was raucous.
“Those meets were like a three-ringed circus,” Bob Newland, Jr., who attended as both a spectator and competitor, told TrackTown USA’s Ben De Jarnette. “With the 160-yard track and the steep banks, it was just really exciting.”
Prefontaine had some opposition when it came to stirring spectators at the Coliseum. The Beatles played there in 1965, and in 1970, the year of his first outstanding run there, another well-known music attraction had been centre-stage. Elvis.
But when the NCAA’s teenage star turn arrived in town in 1970, he brought a crowd of more than 9,700 fans to their feet with a characteristically bold victory over two miles, leading from gun to tape.
The following year Prefontaine defended the title on the narrow, wooden boards by running 8min 31.6sec, then the sixth-fastest time in history. And 1972, Olympic year, inspired him to an even greater flourish in the Coliseum.
Shortly before the Olympic trials, US medal favourite Jim Ryun - then world record holder at both 1500m and the mile - rang the meeting director to request a race against the prodigious youngster over two miles.
By the time the 22 laps were run, Ryun had almost been lapped by the local hero, whose time of 8:26.6 was a US collegiate record. “I am pleased with the time, don’t get me wrong,” Prefontaine told Track & Field News. “But it could have been faster.”
Eleven years earlier, at the first Oregon Invitational, there had been an equally emphatic exhibition of gun-to-tape running from Murray Halberg, New Zealand’s 1960 Olympic 5,000m champion, as he set a world record of 8:34.0 for the two miles.
It is fitting that undiluted attention will fall upon the pole vault at the forthcoming World Indoors, with the men’s and women’s events taking place on their own on the evening of March 17. For along with the two miles, the pole vault was one of the stand-out events of the Oregon Invitational.
In 1963, UCLA decathlete C K Yang add 18 inches to his personal best to set a surprise world indoor record of 16 feet, 3 ¼ inches. “My first feeling when I made it was wow,” Yang told reporters after the jump, according to The Oregonian. “Nothing else, just wow.”
The shot put also provided highlights, as Oregon’s own Neil Steinhauser set a world indoor record of 67ft 10in (20.67m) in 1967.
The contributions of Prefontaine, Ryun and 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter helped light up the 1970s.
But the Invitational appeared to be on the brink of extinction after spectator levels diminished throughout the early 1980s. Enter Pacific Northwest Bell as sponsors in 1986 - and new meeting director Tom Jordan began to use the new funding to bring together world-class athletes.
“The meet had an illustrious history, featuring top athletes from the University of Oregon and Oregon State University,” Jordan told insidethegames. “With the advent of professionalism in the 1980s, the Oregon Indoor maintained a policy of not paying more than expenses for the athletes. This hurt the marketability of the event.
“With my hire, that policy changed and with the appearance of some top names in US track and field, we were able to fill the arena. The track length was a standard 11-laps to a mile banked board. This was the size that would fit in most American indoor multi-use facilities.
“Very few arenas with spectator seating could fit a 200-metre track. Don't forget, the history of indoor track in the US is yard-centric. Spectators ran the gamut - but they were mostly middle-aged fans of the sport, not youth or athletes.”
Jordan oversaw the meeting’s last hurrah, from 1986 to 1992, before the sponsorship dried up again. “It was down to new management at the title sponsor company,” he said “The person in charge preferred to support the arts in Portland, rather than a sports event.”
And so to four years of a dying fall.
For Jordan, the outstanding performances during his time of involvement with the meeting were Olympic pole vault medallist Earl Bell’s meeting record of 19-2 ¾ in 1987, "with a short run-up", and “Ray Flynn breaking four minutes in his last indoor race, on what had to be the slowest track in America.” That race came in 1990, as Flynn ran 3:58.35 to beat Eamonn Coghlan, the event’s world record-holder and inaugural 1500m world champion. Other highlights included Mary Slaney’s US 1,000m record of 2:37.6 in 1989.
The Coliseum, renamed the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, remains in Portland, where it currently hosts the Portland Winterhawks junior ice hockey team. But it has not staged a major indoor athletics meeting since the last of the Oregon Invitationals 20 years ago.
The strange truth is that, for all its tradition of indoor athletics, Oregon has not even had an indoor training track available since the old wooden boards of the Coliseum were dismantled and taken away.
Vin Lananna, President and Chair of the World Indoor Championship organisers, TrackTown USA, points out one compelling reason for that hiatus.
“In the United States the majority of those indoor meets took place in other venues, like basketball arenas,” said Lananna, who is also the US 2016 Olympic head coach for men’s track and field. “When the size of the track increased from 11 laps in a mile to ten, then to eight, the venues were no longer capable of accepting the track in there,” he told Spikes at the IAAF.
But since the new 200m Championship track was finished in December, no-one could accuse Lananna and TrackTown of any lack of initiative as they have set about re-kindling the embers of the Oregon indoor athletic tradition.
After being assembled in a disused warehouse in north-west Portland, the track awaited transport to the Oregon Convention Center in time for the US national trials held the week before the World Indoor Championships. Lananna then had the simple and brilliant idea of making what was swiftly named the House of Track available for the use of the whole range of athletics participants, from elite performers through to junior and high school athletes and recreational runners.
The track was available for 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and staged four Friday night high performance meetings which attracted athletes such as Allyson Felix, Galen Rupp, Matthew Centrowitz, Shannon Rowbury and English Gardner.
“Based on the buzz and enthusiasm being generated in the lead up to the World Indoors, we believe there is definitely still a strong love for indoor athletics in Oregon and Portland in particular,” Lananna added to insidethegames. “Our hope and ambition has always been to rekindle interest and participation in indoor athletics, not just in Portland, but across the state and, ultimately, around the country.
“We are especially proud of the House of Track, which is a good example of how much excitement can be generated in the community with relatively modest resources.
“We estimated that 10,000 people of all ages came to the House of Track in just four weeks with virtually no promotional plan, all virally by word of mouth and social media, and the excitement and momentum generated for the sport indoors was phenomenal. With the help of the City, we’d love to be able to build on that legacy going forward.
“I only arrived in Oregon in 2005 and never attended the Oregon Invitational, but people still talk about the excitement it created over the years and now is our chance to revive that momentum and interest.”
Lananna, who headed Eugene’s unsuccessful bid for the 2019 IAAF World Championships and subsequently gained the event from the IAAF for 2021 without need of another bidding campaign, is looking intently to this month, but also beyond…
“Hosting the World Indoors in Portland is generating a lot of excitement and buzz around the sport in the US, but we would not live up to our long-term vision of elevating the sport nationally if we just looked at this event as a one-off,” he said.
“The same is true for Eugene 2021. We absolutely see these events as important steps in a long-term plan for growth. The Los Angeles bid for 2024 is certainly not lacking in local support, but these events are also a demonstration of a commitment – from the United States Olympic Committee and from the sport movement in this country in general - to hosting major Olympic sports events in the United States as a way of being more engaged with the rest of the world.”
As part of his submission to the IAAF while bidding for the 2019 World Championships, Lananna claimed that a choice for Eugene would “crack open the US markets to our sport,” adding: “There will be an unprecedented audience for athletics in the United States.” He believes the World Indoor Championships are a first big step in this direction. But only one step.
“As I have insisted all along, if any of these events are seen as only an end to themselves, then we have failed in our vision and mission – which is to create a long-term strategy to elevate the sport in the United States.
“The potential for the US market is huge, but it’s also highly competitive and we cannot believe that simply by hosting the Championships, people will come and tune in. We must be proactive and creative. We must be in a position to offer compelling and rich content to the US viewers who are becoming more sophisticated and selective about how they consume sport.
“We must be able - and the IAAF shares in this responsibility - to innovate and offer new and fun ways to present our sport. Part of that success will also be in our ability to partner with the broadcast innovators - such as NBC - in order to create a narrative and story that will draw in fans who may not normally be interested in the sport.”
The IAAF decision last year to award the 2021 World Championships to Eugene without the requirement of a further bid process has been widely criticised, not least in Gothenburg, which was planning to bid for the same Championships but was left without that option.
All but two members of the 25-strong IAAF Council body supported the decision urged upon them by the former President, Lamine Diack. At the time, the decision was described as a "clear choice...that enables us to take advantage of a unique opportunity that may never arise again, whereby public authorities, the private sector, the National Olympic Committee, NBC and a particularly enthusiastic public are joining forces.”
But Lananna denies that Eugene presented the IAAF with a “now or never” deal.
“We never presented the IAAF Council with an ultimatum," he said. "We came away from the loss of the 2019 bid disappointed, of course, but also encouraged by many of the Council Members who saw the strength and potential of our proposal, based on a unique coalition of public and private partners in the state of Oregon.
“After having gone through an exhaustive bid and evaluation process, we simply went back to the IAAF and offered to maintain our proposal, but we were also honest and clear in saying that we were not sure how long we could hold that package together.
“In the end, the overwhelming majority of the Council made a decision, based on a sound strategic view, and we continue to believe strongly that the decision was made for the right place for the right reasons.”
Lananna is now looking forward to an unrivalled series of showcases for US track and field talent over the next few years.
“One of our greatest selling points for hosting the World Championships in the United States is the rich and deep talent from Team USA," he said.
"These athletes have consistently performed at the top of the medal tables at Olympic Games and World Championships, but have rarely had the opportunity to compete on home soil.
“Our sport needs heroes in order to inspire the next generation of great athletes. We absolutely believe these tremendous events in the US can accomplish that for us with performances from athletes such as Allyson Felix, Matthew Centrowitz, Evan Jager and many others. In addition, some of sport’s greatest stars, like Ashton Eaton and Galen Rupp, are Oregon-born and trained and their success and participation creates further opportunity to generate excitement and momentum locally.”
So the flame of indoor athletics is about to flare again in Oregon. For Tom Jordan, however, things can never be quite the same.
“The old days have gone forever,” he said. “At least in terms of there being a series of major indoor events spread across the United States, drawing capacity crowds at every stop.
"The proliferation of televised sports has put an end to that era. But it's a bit like waxing nostalgic for the 1930s: it may sound romantic, but that was then and this is now.”