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Splits: Happy World Championships, America

Grab your friends, feed them pizza, convert some track and field fans.

Photo: Getty Images

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Here we are. For those of us who have been following track and field for a while, it felt like this day was always far off, in the distance. An entirely new state-of-the-art track was erected on the sport’s most hallowed American ground right in front of our eyes and I, for one, still didn’t quite comprehend that the World Championships would actually be held in the United States one day. But that one day has turned into today.

The World Championships begin Friday, July 15, in Eugene, Oregon. The new Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, courtesy of an estimated $270 million donation from Nike founder Phil Knight, is hosting 1,900 of the world’s best track and field athletes, over 10 days of competition.

The stated hope from federation leadership all along was that holding the World Championships for the first time ever in the U.S. would “grow the sport.” It’s a phrase that industry insiders have used as long as I can remember but I have never actually heard that term defined. I’m all about goals, but what does “grow the sport” really mean? If it means “attract more fans” then we all know that holding such a huge, prestigious meet in a remote (read: inaccessible) college town in the Pacific Northwest isn’t the answer. We won’t get into the politics of the decision to award the event to “Tracktown USA” today, but nobody has to think too deeply to identify where the swoosh of power and money come from.

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Alas, Eugene is, indeed, a beautiful home to the most loyal and enthusiastic track geeks in the country. And the new facility is a marvel for anybody who appreciates the sport (just bring your sunscreen and hydrate—it becomes very warm, very quickly when the sun is beating down on the stands). But, it takes a lot of money to get there, the town doesn’t have enough affordable hotel and housing accommodations, and the area can’t absorb a massive influx of visitors. For those lucky enough to attend, the cost was significant—and I’m willing to bet that those who forked over thousands of dollars to be there have been fans of the sport all along (or is a relative of an athlete).

Lucky for the rest of us, though, we can watch the competition from the cheap seats in our homes on NBC and NBC-related channels. Is the schedule confusing? Sure. But greater minds have boiled it down for us, so you can find a comprehensive guide here. That elusive fan base that we’re after, though, is going to need our help. If you’re not paying attention to track and field, you probably have no idea that this is happening. That’s where we come in. I’m calling for a grassroots effort here.

U.S. fans, it’s up to us to spread the good word. Lure your non-running friends to your house under the guise of pizza, casually turn on NBC (or CNBC or Peacock, or USA Network, or…) and watch the great Allyson Felix’s last lap. Serve up some coffee and muffins on Monday and talk about Sara Hall’s long career, but her first marathon in the USA uniform. Maybe pour some wine and show appreciation for Emily Infeld’s inspiring comeback to make the 5,000-meter team. High school coaches: throw a couple of watch parties and let your athletes imagine what it must be like for Sydney McLaughlin, who was just a teen herself in 2016 when she made the Olympic team at Hayward. Now she’s back, going for gold as the world-recorder holder in the 400-meter hurdles. Make sure you gather a crowd for the best event on the schedule: the women’s 800 meters, which always thrills with Athing Mu, Ajee’ Wilson, and Raevyn Rogers on the line.

Will individual “marketing” efforts save the sport of track and field? No. Will pizza and beers “grow the sport?” Absolutely not. But the first World Championship in the U.S. is something to celebrate for faithful fans—and it’s worth sharing. Ten days of triumph, heartbreak, drama, and athleticism is a summer treat. Enjoy the show, wherever you’re watching. And remember: it’s better with friends.

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