Small town, big dreams: USA banks on hosting worlds to boost athletics

They call it TrackTown USA: a magical oasis where track and field is respected and revered, and given near-equal billing to the major sports. And for the next 10 days Eugene, Oregon will seek to conjure up an even greater feat: by making the rest of America follow suit.

To the outsider, Eugene appears a baffling choice to host America’s first world athletics championships. Especially when its population is only 170,000.

But this is where the American jogging craze was born in the 1960s, when the Oregon coach Bill Bowerman introduced it to the masses after a trip to New Zealand. It was Bowerman who then set up Nike, whose owner, Phil Knight, has largely funded the shiny new Hayward Field stadium.

If you build it, people will come, goes the line from Field of Dreams. That soon will be put to the test. The good news for organisers is that the event should start with a bang, with one of the few well-known US athletes, the 36-year-old Allyson Felix, expected to win the final medal of a glittering career in the mixed 4x400m relay on day one.

Then it will be up to others to pick up the baton, such as the 22-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, who last month shattered her own world record in the 400m hurdles in an extraordinary 51.41 seconds, and the 18-year-old Erriyon Knighton, who has run the 200m faster than Usain Bolt did at the same age.

The mission, says the World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, is clear: to win fresh hearts and minds. “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,” he says. “We don’t want to come out of the world championships in Oregon without a very defined footprint for our sport in that country.”

The ingredients are certainly in place for a deluge of records on the track, with a lightning-fast surface, perfect weather and super spikes. And the World Athletics CEO, Jon Ridgeon, believes the same is true off it too. “We have great live TV slots every evening on NBC and the US team should perform spectacularly,” he says. “And I think that alone will really help grow audiences and our fan base in America.”

But TV executives suffered a massive blow when Sha’Carri Richardson, a true breakthrough star who was banned from last year’s Olympics after testing positive for marijuana, failed to qualify for the women’s 100m or 200m. And there are also concerns that thousands of tickets remain unsold for the 12,650 site, with many fans put off by the eye-watering prices to stay in the small number of hotels around Eugene.

When it comes to British chances there are plenty of possibles, but few absolute certainties. The 20-year-old Keely Hodgkinson looks the most nailed on for a medal, although it will be hard for her to win 800m gold against the home star Athing Mu. Laura Muir is another who appears in the form to back up her Olympic 1500m silver medal, while the men’s and women’s 4x100m relays are usually bankers for a GB medal too.

In the men’s 1500m the Tokyo bronze medallist Josh Kerr is said to be flying in training along with Jake Wightman. However the most intriguing athlete by far in the British team is the brilliant 20-year-old Max Burgin, who has made plenty of headlines with his front-running style. He is yet to run in a major championship but he holds the fastest time in the world this year in 1:43:52. Whisper it, but if he can put together three races in four days, he may even be Britain’s best shot at a gold medal.

Elsewhere, only a fool would write off Dina Asher-Smith in the 100m and 200m, given how she is a championship performer, while the pole vaulter Holly Bradshaw, the long jumper Lorraine Ugen and Eilish McColgan in the 10,000m could yet sneak into a medal if the cards fall their way.

Meanwhile question marks remain over the form of the world heptathlon champion, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and the 800m star Jemma Reekie after injuries and glandular fever respectively.

However, Muir is confident that the British team could yet spring one or two surprises. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting championship,” she added. “And it’s an amazing opportunity for athletics to showcase itself.”