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US First: World track championships coming to Eugene in 2021
spt ap Eugene

BEIJING (AP) — After nearly four decades of bypassing the United States, track and field’s marquee event is finally headed to the country that has been the dominant force in the sport.

The small Oregon city of Eugene, a northwestern town steeped in American track history and the home of the University of Oregon, was awarded the 2021 world athletics championships on Thursday in a surprise move that came without a bidding process.

The IAAF, the governing body of the sport, said the decision was driven by the desire to break into the key American market.

“We have to give it to Eugene, to a city where athletics is like a religion,” IAAF president Lamine Diack said.

Eugene has become a hotbed for track and field in recent decades, just as interest in the sport has waned. The city hosts an annual Diamond League meet, one of a series of top-tier IAAF track events, and staged the world junior championships last year. The 2016 world indoor championships will be held in nearby Portland.

And it was a former University of Oregon runner and his track coach that started Nike in the early 1970s. Nike Inc.’s headquarters, outside Portland in Beaverton, are just up the road, providing a powerful incentive to bring the championships to Eugene.

The 2021 worlds will be at Hayward Field, the historic stadium used by the University of Oregon track team and the venue that made runner Steve Prefontaine an iconic figure in American track. The stadium will be rebuilt to accommodate 32,000 spectators for the 2021 meet.

“It’s always been a problem for us to engage both commercially and sportingly in the U.S.,” IAAF vice president Sebastian Coe told The Associated Press. “The United States is the world’s largest sports market. We need to be there.”

Coe, a middle-distance running great who also sits on the IAAF Council, is running to succeed Diack as IAAF president in August.

The world athletics championships have been held every two years since 1991, the third edition of the competition. The first world championships were held in 1983 in Helsinki, Finland, followed by Rome in 1987.

The 2015 competition will be held in Beijing, followed by London in 2017 and Doha, Qatar, in 2019.

Although the United States has never hosted the championships, the country’s athletes have dominated the medals table, finishing at the top of the list in 11 of the 14 previous competitions. The other three times the Americans were second.

Diack said that granting the world championships to an American city had been a long cherished hope — and something of a parting gift to the United States before his retirement this year.

“Yes, you can understand it like that. It is also a gift for myself, and I was really fighting for this to happen,” Diack said. “Going to the United States for track and field is a strategic decision and I was pleased to make a gift to them and to myself.”

The IAAF said it bypassed the usual bidding process and chose Eugene because of the financial support offered by the governor of Oregon and the United States Olympic Committee, as well as NBC’s commitment to produce and broadcast the event.

While cities usually compete to hold such events, the IAAF also awarded the 2007 world championships to Osaka, Japan, without opening it to bidding.

Not everybody was happy with the announcement, which came during the second half of the IAAF Council meeting in Beijing.

“I must say I am very surprised by the complete lack of process in the decision the IAAF has taken,” said Svein Arne Hansen, a Norwegian who recently took over as president of European Athletics. “The IAAF knew that Gothenburg was a serious candidate for the 2021 world championships. Swedish Athletics and the city had put in a lot of effort over the years to prepare the bidding application but they have not even been given the chance to bid for the event.”

Gothenburg hosted the fifth edition of the world championships in 1995.

Eugene lost out to Doha, Qatar, last November in bidding to host the 2019 world championships. But the city renewed its lobbying for the 2021 edition over recent months with a fresh proposal to the IAAF. Stanford, California, had also unsuccessfully bid in 1999 and 2001.

The leader of the bid effort, Vin Lananna, said Eugene had carried forward its original commitments, knowing that Diack had a strong desire to bring the worlds to the United States.

“(It’s) in the DNA of the people of the great state of Oregon,” Lananna said. “U.S. athletes do so well on the world stage and finally having an opportunity to be on your home field is a tremendous opportunity.”

Besides a larger stadium at Hayward Field for the worlds, Lananna said the upgrade will include an Olympic-type village to help ensure an “absolutely athletes-centric event.”