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Tracktown USA leaves inspirational impression

Katharine Merry | 06:16 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

It's late on Sunday night on the West Coast of the USA and I am still digesting the time I have spent here at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon.

Even though I was a Nike-sponsored athlete for 12 years of my career, and the company is a major part of this event, I never made the start line here, normally because of injury.

Since touching down here on Thursday I have felt like I have been living in a little world that sits on its own, detached from the rest of the USA.

Everyone has said with amazement, "You have never been to Pre before? I can't explain why, but you will love it".

If I am honest, I wondered what the fuss was all about as athletics isn't very big in much of the USA.

In Eugene, Oregon, though, it is huge. It is called Tracktown USA because the town knows it track and field and the athletes love competing here.

Clockwise from top left: Dwight Phillips records the best long jump in 15 years, Sanya Richards wins the 400m, Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot wins over 2,000m, Reese Hoffa throws the shot, Maggie Vessey reacts after winning the 800m, LaShawn Merritt wins the 30

The US Olympic trials were here last year and they had, over the 10 days, 200,000 spectators. Already Eugene is booked to host every major US Championships trials until at least 2013, including the London Olympic 2012 trials.

Bring athletics to Eugene and it goes down a storm, partly because of the town's history and passion for track and field, and partly because of the man the meeting is named after, Steve Prefontaine.

Prefontaine, who was tragically killed in a car accident in his running prime aged just 24 years old in 1975, helped inspire the "running boom" in the 1970s.

Primarily a long-distance runner who once held the American record in the seven distance track events from the 2,000 to 10,000m, Prefontaine enrolled at the University of Oregon to train under coach Bill Bowerman.

Bowerman co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports, later known as Nike, and Prefontaine became the first athlete to sign with the company in 1974.

For the 35 years since his death, they have an annual athletics meeting in Prefontaine's honour.

He is an icon in these parts, and the story that followed Wednesday's bad electrical storm, when the meet director's computer malfunctioned, showed that perfectly.

The director took the computer to the store to fix and they said it would be a week, he mentioned he needed it working ASAP as it was for the Prefontaine meeting and the older guy working there said: "For Pre, give me an hour".

Steve Prefontaine

The man was, as all are here, a Prefontaine fan and said he would sit most days with his friends when he was younger outside as Steve Prefontaine would do his daily run past.

They would say "Hi Pre", Prefontaine would say "Hi" back and the friends would talk about it for an hour.

Once I had delivered my live, 20-minute video presentation and done some interviews for the passionate 11,000 crowd, introducing over 30 Beijing Olympic medallists, I had the pleasure of standing on the finish line and watching a 20-event, two-hour meeting that was awesome.

The athletic performances, including Dwight Phillips jumping 8.74m for the fifth best long jump in history, were outstanding but it was as much about the vibe.

I then understood what everyone had been talking about all week.

The energy and emotion was electric. I have never in my 24 years in athletics felt anything like it, and I was part of one of the most iconic Olympic finals in history, with 112,000 people in the stadium in Sydney.

The Prefontaine family were in the stadium, as they are every year, and it was great to feel that for one day every year, a country that doesn't really do athletics, does it wonderfully.


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice blog Katharine. It's good to hear of a place in the US where athletics is fully given the respect and support it deserves. I just wish there was a place quite like it in this country. Whilst the British are great supporters at Championships, I always wish we could get more support domestically on a regular basis. When you were competing, what was your favourite venue in the UK?

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi ThomThomTiger
    It was a very nice surprise to witness such passion for T&F here in the USA. Every annoucement was cheered.....right from the go when Scott the announcer said 'Welcome the the 35th Prefontaine Classic'! The place erupted.
    Crystal Palace is the best venue I ran at for crowd participation and energy, along with Birmingham's Alexander Stadium, as I am Birchfield Harrier I always had a great time and reception there.
    No other meeting I know has the history and story like Prefontaine does, so that is what makes it's so unique and special.
    Do you attend athletics meeting yourself and what do you find the best days out?

  • Comment number 3.

    Katharine - I just wanted to compliment you for delivering an outstanding preview program on Sunday. I arrived at Hayward Field for the Prefontaine Classic an hour early to save seats for my family and was thoroughly entertained by your 20-minute program which was packed with insightful information on each event and included live interviews with our favorite athletes. Keep up the great work and we hope to see you next year in Eugene for the 2010 Pre Classic!

  • Comment number 4.

    I guess I have to hold my hands up here as Im guilty as the majority of the public in finding it hard to dedicate as much time and money as I would like to attending meets. Saying that, on a local level I always tried to get down my local stadium, the Julie Rose in Ashford (major feature: the Colin Jackson suite), when I could and now that Ive recently moved to South London I will be able to visit Crystal Palace a lot more regularly that I have done, which is a positive boon for me.

    CP has always held the best atmosphere for me but surely with 2012 fast approaching there needs to be a concerted effort to start converting people into regular attendees all over the country and not just in the hotspots. I just dont really see this happening at all.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Eugene 1967
    Thank you for you kind words. I really enjoyed my time here in Eugene and am now very jealous and frustrated I never actually got to run in the meet!

  • Comment number 6.

    Katharine: I forgot to mention your tidbit on the origin of the steeplechase (runners racing from one steeple to the next in the British Isles) was particularly interesting to myself and everyone in our section!

  • Comment number 7.

    Phillips V Saladino - This could be the duel of the summer!

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Katherine!
    I am currently in my second last year of school and would like to take a gap year from 2010-2011. After reading your blog, and as an athlete myself, I would like to know more about running in Oregon and the possibility of doing a one-year course of some kind or helping out a local school. I wondered if you knew any coaches nearby who I could make contact with or if you had any further advice?

    This would be much apreciated

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Katharine, great blog about Pre.. brings back the fond memories. Being a distance runner in the late 70's, I grew up hearing stories about the Pre legend...He is kind of like the Ron Hill of Americans. He really drew attention to the sport and of course, he was quite good at it also. The State of Oregon definitely has to be the American mecca of Track as they have had so many outstanding distance runners come out of that University. Anyway.. you will hear from me again, I'm sure. Keep up the good Blog !

  • Comment number 10.

    Katherine: we may have a cross-Atlantic vocabulary issue. When you say "athletics" can I assume you mean what we describe in the US as "track and field"? You're right that most of the US doesn't turn out for track and field meets in general, but this country's support of "athletics" in general (football, baseball, etc.) borders on the insane. You'd only have to attend a single American football game at the University of Oregon in the autumn to know I'm right. Thanks for the nice coverage of the Pre event. It is, in my way of thinking, what Wimbledon used to be before it got caught up in the full light of media coverage. Same color buildings as well.

  • Comment number 11.

    @akarunnerbean: If you're searching for more info, history, and stories about Oregon running in general and Pre in particular, a great place to start is the biography of Bill Bowerman, titled "Bowerman and the Men of Oregon". It's a spectacular work that chronicles the innumerable contributions to the world of running that the small state has given. I highly recommend it to any fan of athletics, no matter what side of the pond they reside on. If you're looking for people to contact, start with the University of Oregon Running Club ( or the Oregon Track Club ( Look to for general Eugene running info. Best of Luck!

    @Diatriber: You're right, in the old world 'athletics' does refer to the events that in the US make up 'track and field'. In a case of What-would-I-know-without-Hollywood, I can say that with confidence because I saw it in Chariots of Fire. Da da da da daa daaaaa... And be careful about telling the Euros about insane sports fans. Next you'll be thinking the NFL is as popular as the Premier League!

    @Katharine: Thanks so much for spreading the Pre Classic excitement internationally. Few US newspapers reported on it today, so imagine my surprise to find a BBC headline. Just like rowing, the beauty of running will always endure, even without the big bucks of mainstream sports.

    And is there anyone in England who hasn't read 'The Perfect Mile' by Neal Bascomb?

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi all
    It has been my pleasure to spread the word far and wide about the Pre Classic. Track and Field, like many sports, has become a business that sometimes loses the passion so I bottled up as much as I could I brought it back to the UK with me!
    Thom Thom Tiger:
    With the way the world is today and the the mass of media coverage of sports many stay at home and get great coverage, so do not venture down to the sports. One key is to have household names and personalities, and track has been missing a few of these in recent years. Look back 10-15 years and the public could name many British Athletics stars, where as now the public can count them on one hand. We need the names and personalities to get people more interested.
    In regards to what the sport is doing, tomorrow night in Cardiff the SUPER8 concept is being piloted where they are bringing in a city vs city challenge. With 2012 approaching this is time to really get things up and running. Will this Super8 concept work and give more people access to Athletics?
    I think StCrispinsDay has assisted with some advice for you. Best of luck.
    The language barrier! Yes athletics to us here in the UK is Track and Field..Your big sports are NFL, Ice Hockey and the NBA right? Where as our 'big' is Football (socccer!) and football again!
    Having lived in USA and attended all 3 of your 'big' sport games....then insane is the right word!

  • Comment number 13.

    Great blog have jogged my memory about Steve Prefontaine.....didn't they do a film of his life?
    It sounds a great athletics meeting and must have been good considering some of the races you ran in and you were inspired just watching!
    When do the US athletes come to the UK and do you think Phillips will break the long jump record as he says? I thought he had retired. Keep up the good work and interesting & insightful blogs.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thank you St Crispins Day!!

  • Comment number 15.

    Well, there are actually some problems lurking behind the UO/Nike brand. Glad you had a good time at the event but I would encourage you to follow up with a closer inspection of what is going on at UO. Much of it is explained here :

  • Comment number 16.

    Thanks for the interesting blog and getting the word out about Pre.

    As to what are the most popular sports in the US, a 2006 Harris Poll found that that when people in the US were asked their favorite sport to watch, this is how they answered:

    1. Pro (American) football (NFL) - 29%
    2. Pro baseball (MLB) - 14%
    3. College football - 13%
    4. Auto Racing - 9%
    5. Men's pro basketball - 7%
    6. Men's college basketball - 5%
    7. Men's golf - 4%
    8. Hockey - 4%
    9. Men's soccer - 2%
    10. Men's Tennis - 2%
    11. Track & Field - 2%

    Track/athletics obviously has a long way to go in the US, but I think Pre is the model for making it more popular with exciting, tightly scheduled events.

  • Comment number 17.

    I have been privileged to have competed twice at Hayward Field as a guest competitor at the US masters track and field championships. Hayward Field is easily the best stadium that I have ever competed at. Tracktown is definitely a place apart in the USA.

  • Comment number 18.

    What a great insight to such a fantastic event which appears to have a truely unique atmosphere. It is a shame that last weeks Super8 did not mirror this, maybe we need to copy some elements of the meet in Eugene starting with the infield presenter!

  • Comment number 19.

    I am glad through this blog that I have been able to spread the word about Prefontaine and the great meet it is.

    Yes there have been programmes etc about Pre's life, including a film made in 1997 directed by Steve James.
    T&F is down the list behind hockey which surprises me, do you mean Ice Hockey? Pre is the model for all T&F meets to go in the USA , in my humble opinion!
    Did you go to the Super8 in Cardiff then? I was working elsewhere so didn't attend and have heard mixed, mainly not great, reviews.
    Prefontaine this year boasted over 30 Beijing medallists, which of course helps, but we just don't have that depth here in the UK and it goes back to what I said earlier in the blog. You need personalities, household names and medals winners to get many of the public, outside of hard core athletics fans, interested.

  • Comment number 20.

    Katharine I have to disagree with you about USA not doing track and field! We have family in the US and have always found far more opportunities for children at high school and college and also loads of events for them to participate in. We were in Philadelphia in April for the Penn Relays. Go to the stadium with 46,000 people in it cheering high school and college kids and tell me USA doesn't do athletics!

    Standard wise they leave us miles behind. Take the NCAA champs recently - those performances by college sutdents were awesome and again extremely well attended! Yes after college their club system isn't so much in evidence but the country does do Track and Field!

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi Kath,

    How is the coaching going with that young 400m hurdler that just missed out on Beijing..the name eludes me? sorry.
    Great article and i am always disappointed we never get coverage of these great American track meets, and not just the Pre Classic or even the Reebok classic recently where Tyson Gay ran 19.58 for his first race of the season, not to mention the upcoming U.S trials.
    Without Limits is by far the best Pre ordering my 'Stop Pre' shirts from the net as i speak lol

  • Comment number 22.

    Hi all.
    It is great to see these one off meetings in the USA doing very well including Pre and the Penn Relays but as you can see from the stat list from trackfan1960 above, T&F sits in 11th position below the likes of golf and auto racing! Nothing wrong with that but it proves it's not the most popular. You will always get passionate fans, but I stick by the statement of the 'USA not really doing T&F' as all the US athletes tell they always look forward to coming over and competing in Europe as they get more money and recognition!
    The athlete you are mentioning is Perri Shakes Drayton. A very talented 400mh who won our National Championships last year in Birmingham. Firstly I do not coach her, that job is being done well by Chris Zah in London, but I do spend time mentoring Perri in my Aviva UK mentoring role.
    She is currently this season not far outside her pb and sits in the UK rankings just behind Tasha Danvers and Eilidh Childs and is looking forward to the Aviva National Champs in Birmingham in July and the U23 Champs in Kaunas.

  • Comment number 23.

    The hockey in the survey is the National Hockey League (professional US/Canadian hockey), which has fairly deep support in the Midwest and Northeast, but the support gets weaker as you move south where there is less of a winter sports tradition for obvious reasons.

    I think Elainelong's comment points out the difference in interest levels between running/T&F as a spectator sport and a participatory sport. There is a high level of participation in cross country and track at a high school level -- I have read that more high schoolers in the US participate in these sports than any other. But compared to football or basketball there are very few spectators at high school track meets. Even at big meets like Penn, a high percentage of spectators are family members of participants, together with expatriate Jamaicans or other groups with a particular interest in track.

    There's a similar situation with road racing, with high levels of participation in 5ks up to marathons, but not a lot of awareness of professional or elite road racing.

    The challenge in the US is to translate people's memories of cross country or track in high school or their participation in road racing into support for T&F at an elite level, and, as most of the commentators have agreed, Pre is a good model for how to do that.

  • Comment number 24.

    Haha..sorry im having a little chuckle to myself that The Katherine Merry replied to my query!(im new to this blog thing!) watched you so much on the tv when you competed in the 400m.Great work on the blog and hope to see you on the BBC coverage of the trails or grand prix.

  • Comment number 25.

    Hi again Tracktownsuperstar!
    Thank you for kind words and chuckles!
    I will continue to work hard in the media world and love the greatest sport around!
    Btw Perri ran a flat 400m pb last week and heads to the Aviva U23 (U20 also) trials in Bedford this weekend.
    Best wishes.

  • Comment number 26.

    Kath, on the subject of 400m runners, what happened to the young welsh guy with the brown hair who used to be fairly quick...i believe his first name was Rhys??


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