The World Athletics Championships is heading to the home of the world’s biggest athletic apparel brand.
From 15th to 24th July, the track and field elite will be in Eugene, Oregon, also known as ’Track Town, USA’. Despite its modest size and international profile - not least compared to previous hosts like Berlin, Tokyo and Paris - the city boasts a running-obsessed community and a rich history of staging national athletics showpieces.
The Prefontaine Classic, named for the late local hero and 70s distance running icon Steve Prefontaine, packs the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field every year. The stadium underwent a $300 million rebuild for the world championships and a week before the opening ceremony, there were reports that all ten evening sessions there would sell out.
That heritage both inspired and is informed by the creation of Nike. Though its modern global headquarters are based elsewhere in the state in Beaverton, Nike was founded in Eugene and Springfield, with Prefontaine among its very earliest users, and it retains significant connections with the area. The company’s role in the sport and the awarding of the championships have not been without controversy but its influence, and the local power of athletics, are clear.
Nike is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and while it is not an official partner of the event - Japanese brand Asics is a sponsor of governing body World Athletics - it is bound to make an impact through its association with the host city, teams including the US and dozens of potential medallists. The latter may be the most significant: over the past half a century, perhaps no other organisation has been more influential in putting athletes at the centre of sports marketing.
These championships are also the first ever to be staged in the US, and they come with World Athletics trying to rebuild the sport's presence there ahead of the LA 2028 Olympics. Yet it also comes with athletics also having to rethink its offering so that the champions of tomorrow have the same exposure and opportunity as those who came before them.
Perhaps the last true global breakout star in athletics, Usain Bolt, made his farewell appearance at London 2017. Those championships were highly successful, with the stadium built for the 2012 Olympics consistently full.
The next edition, in the Qatari capital of Doha in 2019, was a disaster in terms of attendances. Two years of huge disruption followed. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were first delayed and then held behind closed doors, with the usual rhythm of national and regional qualifiers also interrupted. The world championships were postponed to this year as a consequence.
That makes it difficult to assess the sport’s current commercial standing. Nonetheless, there have been long-term concerns about declining visibility and an awkward fit with modern media habits in this most international and accessible of disciplines.
There have been some bold attempts at reinvention, including city centre challenge events. Eliud Kipchoge’s successful 2019 attempt to run a marathon in under two hours, backed by chemicals manufacturer Ineos but showcasing Nike’s Vaporfly footwear, headlined news bulletins around the world and demonstrated the appetite for athletics' displays of human achievement.
The possibilities for creative engagement also exist at the grassroots - as World Athletics recognised through a 2020 partnership with Parkrun, which operates over 2,000 free community 5k runs in 23 countries each week. Athletics’ greatest potential may lie in combining a passion for physical activity with effective digital tools, while connecting that to the appeal of elite competition and compelling global stars.
Brands like Nike, its rivals and its challengers are well placed to make that happen. From here, it will take a little imagination to make it possible.
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