By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – The 18th edition of the World Athletics Championships begins in Eugene, Oregon on Friday and though it is, remarkably, the first time the event has been held in the United States, the sport’s leaders are banking on it causing a stir in the host country.
One of the great anomalies of athletics is that the United States has been its dominant superpower for more than a century but has never really taken the sport to its heart in terms of live attendances or TV audiences or media coverage.
This year’s event – postponed from 2021 due to COVID – is being held in the one city where one might expect unstinting support – “Tracktown USA”, the home of Nike and the host of many of the country’s leading meetings.
Yet even here thousands of tickets have yet to be sold for the rebuilt Hayward Field stadium. While that is not hugely unusual for the event – apart from London 2017 where there was barely an empty seat to be had on any day – it will not be a great look for the newly-built 12,650-capacity site.
With the nearby Autzen Stadium home of the University of Oregon’s American Football team regularly filling its 54,000 seats, it is a stark reminder of where even elite international track and field sits in the country’s fan pecking order.
World Athletics of course is fully aware of this issue and is placing great stock on the next two weeks making a difference.
“This is a very important market place for us, it’s the largest sports market in the world and we need to be there in higher profile,” president Seb Coe said.
“We don’t want to come out of the world championships in Oregon without a very defined footprint for our sport in that country.”
World Athletics’ CEO Jon Ridgeon added: “We have great live TV slots every evening on NBC and the U.S. team should perform spectacularly and I think that alone will really help grow audiences and our fan base in America.”
Defending 400 metres hurdles champion Dalilah Muhammad told Reuters this week: “It’s honestly crazy to me that the world championships have never been on U.S. soil. It will bring more fans for the sport and just grow it. We do produce such amazing athletes in the U.S. so it’s about time, I think, that we get the fan support.”
The U.S. has won 170 gold medals since the first championship in 1983 – 110 more than next-best Kenya – and certainly looks well-equipped to top the medal table for the 14th time in 16 events.
In the blue riband men’s 100 metres they have high hopes of making it three in a row after the disappointment of the Tokyo Olympics where Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs took a shock gold.
Tokyo silver medallist Fred Kerley has been in fabulous form this season and could well be part of a home podium sweep alongside defending champion Christian Coleman and Trayvon Bromell.
If that is exactly what American TV executives will be hoping for, they suffered a massive blow when social media favourite Sha’Carri Richardson failed to qualify for the women’s 100m or 200m.
Jamaica look set to dominate the women’s sprints again, with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce raging against her 35 years as she seeks a fifth 100m title under the considerable compatriot threat of double-double Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah and in-form Shericka Jackson.
The U.S. trials and collegiate championships suggested the bouncy Hayward Field track is another super-fast one, potentially even quicker than that at the Tokyo Olympics.
The combination of that surface, the carbon-soled spikes now universally worn at all distances and potentially good weather means world records should be on the cards.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)