Back on Track
As I walked up about 20 rows to get to my seat, I began to worry that I wasted a lot of money on bad seats. I sit down at my seat and look around. Actually, these nosebleed seats might actually be the best place in the house with views of Eugene’s hills and treelines.
My bird’s eye view ended up being the perfect place to watch the return of the Prefontaine Classic, which came back to a new Hayward Field Aug. 20 and 21 after spending 2019 at Stanford when Eugene didn’t have a track and field venue and then being canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
The 2021 Prefontaine Classic was quite the homecoming. Over two days, athletes broke several records and it looked like they had fun doing it.
The Prefontaine Classic is the second large track and field event to be held at the newly built Hayward Field, a $270 million venue paid for by Nike’s Phil Knight. And over the two days, the event made sure that you didn’t forget who paid for the venue.
During the first night, in between the long-distance events, past track and field Olympians and athletes — including those who competed at Tokyo 2020 — were introduced, wearing bright green and yellow “Thank You, Phil” T-shirts. To me, some athletes looked uncomfortable wearing the shirts and expressing the sentiment that Knight is saving the sport of track and field.
But after two days at Hayward Field, it’s hard to feel cynical about the facility. At night, its futuristic energy comes out. Although the Friday night events began late in the evening at 9 pm, lights shone brightly onto the track and field grounds. And with announcer Katharine Merry’s soft British accent and the low rumbling bass and drums from songs playing during the events, Hayward felt like it could belong in the Star Wars galaxy, especially with the silver wraparound roof that isolates the field from the street traffic.
The new Hayward offers runners a leg up on world records. During the races, a light runs along the track, notifying runners of the world record pace for that event. And maybe that’s fueled some of the record-breaking during the Prefontaine Classic. At the end of the meet, athletes broke nine Prefontaine Classic records, eight Hayward Field records, two American records, as well as set new records for the elite track and field Diamond League.
The Prefontaine Classic wasn’t sold out — there were plenty of open seats throughout the venue, not a bad thing given the uptick in COVID cases and the fact that vaccinations and masks were not required — but the fans in the audience were lively for the events, especially for Sha’Carri Richardson, who ran in the 100m. Richardson dazzled the track and field world with her U.S. Olympic trials performance, which quickly shifted to sparking a conversation about whether athletes should be allowed to use weed products after failing a drug test.
As Richardson lined up, the audience cheered her on, an indication that she’s truly become a household track and field name. But when the starting gun fired, Richardson fell to last place, with Elaine Thompson-Herah (Jamaica) winning at 10.54 seconds, setting a meet record and only .05 seconds away from being a world record.
After Richardson’s 100m performance, she pulled out of the 200m race. But in a post-race interview, she told reporters that “This is one race. I’m not done. You know what I am capable of. Count me out if you want to,” she said. “Congratulations to the winners, but they are not done seeing me yet. Period.”
Another favorite for the audience was Ryan Crouser, who’s from Boring, Oregon. He easily won the shot put event, continuing his trend of dominating the event during 2021, which began when he broke the world record at the U.S. trials and then won the gold medal at Tokyo.
The Prefontaine Classic is Crouser’s second time competing at the new Hayward, and on Aug. 21 he did more than break records. At the end of the Prefontaine Classic, he told announcer Merry on the field that he broke some of the concrete off of the shot put pit.
Although the University of Oregon will likely continue to overwhelmingly support its football program, the Prefontaine Classic is a reminder that track and field can be entertaining to watch. Sure, some athletes had bold performances, breaking records, but others had fun, like Craig Engels (U.S.), who decided to celebrate a little early by waving to the audience while on the homestretch of the one-mile event on Aug. 20. Geordie Beamish (Australia) sped up and passed Engels, winning the event.
In the post-run interview while on the field, Merry asked Beamish about Engels’ early celebration. “I wasn’t going to let him get away with that,” Beamish laughed.
Toward the end of the Prefontaine Classic, all I could think about was the 2022 Eugene Marathon, which will end at Hayward Field. I got butterflies in my stomach as I pictured myself finishing on the new Hayward Field’s track — but you won’t see me wearing a “Thank You, Phil” shirt after the marathon.