Fast Times at Track Town, USA

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By Jason Albert

It was misting at Hayward Field. As gray clouds descended, Oregonian Ashton Eaton settled into the starting blocks before the decathlon’s first event--the 100 meters. In a 10.21-second flash, Eaton ran the fastest 100 in decathlon history. Next up, after a rest period, was the long jump.

Within a few minutes, the PA announcer made the call: "And folks, by one centimeter, a world’s best in the long jump…the longest jump in decathlon history." Two events, two world records. Eaton raised his hands, and formed an “O” for Oregon. The crowd, already on its feet, went wild. It’s a reminder of why Eugene is known as Track Town USA.

In the early 60’s, legendary University of Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman introduced jogging to Eugene. Over time, Bowerman and the community supported elite athletes like Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, and Mary Decker Slaney. Eugene hosted a string of Olympic Trials in 1972, 1976 and 1980, but the running culture lagged during off years. Today, Greg Erwin, a former University of Oregon runner helps lead a Track Town renaissance.

"A lot of communities around the country would die to have something, like to be Track Town, to have a cultural phenomenon," Erwin said. "A sense of identity that is so authentic and so real…that it supercedes all other notions of what your community might be."

With the splash of hosting Olympic trials in 2008 and now in 2012, Track Town is back. Yet the lagging local economy has left Eugene struggling to attract young talented individuals who many say will help foster overall economic growth. To help remedy this, Erwin said it's time Eugene embraces the Track Town ethos for the long run.

"Track Town USA is a concept, it's a brand, it is a lifestyle…and it is a physical place all in one," Erwin said. "That’s our identity, like it or not, but we might as well leverage that to make sure that the people of the state of Oregon remember why this is so powerful."

Today, a barber shop famous for styling generations of top runners, a vast network of running trails, and a solemn memorial to Prefontaine known as "Pre’s Rock" are reminders of Eugene’s running heritage. Alan Meyer, a professor of management at the University of Oregon, has researched the recent Track Town revival.

"I have decided that in this case, idealism has triumphed over cynicism," Meyer said. "Because frankly,. I went into this project thinking that underneath the velvet glove is going to be the iron fist of Nike… manipulating and helping engineer the resurrection for corporate objectives rather than for sacred reasons."

Meyer vouched for Track Town’s 2.0 staying power, citing the frequent “All Comers” meets at Hayward, and the resurgent University of Oregon running program. Before the 2012 Olympic Trials began, the city estimated there would be an infusion of $30 million dollars into the local economy.

But the trials are a quadrennial event. Urban economist Art O’Sullivan believes Eugene should know and embrace its strengths: running, nearby forests, and a research university. O’Sullivan said engaging track athletes in schools and city institutions is key. And Eugene’s growth and the full realization of Track Town’s potential may rely on this.

"You want to get the creative people in their 20s and 30s, who are energetic and creative to sort of generate ideas that make us competitive relative to other areas," O'Sullivan said.

Eugene also attracts international athletes to train, race and live in the community.

"Another dimension of this is something called 'consumer city,' the whole notion that what matters to people, the reason why New York City, and Boston and San Francisco are thriving is that they provide a nice mix of consumer goods," O'Sullivan said. "And that’s again maybe another way to parlay the track city phenomena, if you have people coming from the rest of the world they can introduce other things...unusual foods…that sort of things, that sort diversity in restaurant offerings is another attractor for these young hipsters or youngsters who are creative."

Back at Hayward Field on day two of the decathlon, track fan Joan Booth sat high up in the West grandstand. "There really is a special vibe here," Booth said. "I’ve been to almost all the Olympic trials since '72, and for me this is by far the best place...every time it goes somewhere else I say why? Why is it somewhere else? I’ve been to all those somewhere else’s and it’s not the same."

With nine events completed, Eaton needed a personal best time in the 1500 meters to set the overall decathlon world record. The crowds were standing, clapping in unison, the essence of Hayward willing Eaton on. With a lap to go, Eaton was two seconds behind world record pace.

After the day’s events, Eaton attributed his success to something a little less tangible than money and jobs. "With 600 meters to go, I became a firm believer — not that there was much doubt before — but a firm believer that the Hayward Magic does exist because I felt it for 600 meters big time."

This segment aired on June 30, 2012.


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