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The Empty Championships

The 2022 World Athletics Championships took place in Eugene, Oregon in mid-July, and it spurred a debate about the United States. Despite Americans collecting 33 medals, the stands were not nearly full and the television numbers were also lacking. According to 200m champion Noah Lyles, “Not enough has been done”.

On the boards of the food trucks parked next to Eugene’s Hayward Field, people could see the effects of low attendance: on the first day of the World Championships, a hamburger cost 18 USD, then 15, and it fell all the way to 12. The World Cup organisers announced that they had lowered ticket prices from the initial 80 USD to almost half, with a special discount for college students. And every Asics product, the main sponsor of the event, was put on sale on Thursday, four days before the closing, which was also rather unusual. The athletes also expected to event to be more successful than it was.

The the stadium was empty for most of the morning sessions, it was not filled many afternoons and the atmosphere was not as electric as expected. Eugene is a city devoted to athletics, with joggers running throughout it at all hours and seven publicly accessible tracks. But it is a university town, after all, which means it is a ghost town every July. Michael Johnson, now a BBC commentator, was the first to complain about the lack of entertainment and the fact that, when the races were over, all the fans ran to their cars to avoid the traffic jam on the motorway leading to Portland.

“I’m not gonna lie: I feel that not enough has been done in this World Championships. More publicity should have been invested. It’s been a great event, there have been great wins, records, times, but it hasn’t been well organised. People in the street don’t talk about what happened. I’ve only seen information about track and field on NBC”, denounced Noah Lyles, in reference to the television station that has the broadcasting rights. It is strange result for a network that has historically been devoted to Olympic sports.

A Tough Market

“The United States is a tough nut to crack. It’s a crowded entertainment market, a complicated market. We should have focused more on promoting athletes. We’re going to look at it” explained International Athletics Federation president Sebastian Coe, who like Lyles accepted that Eugene was not the best choice to boost athletics in the US. “I politely note that there were not many other options available”, Coe said, looking forward to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. His organisation and the United States Track and Field Federation, in fact, have created an initiative called “Project USA” to try to boost the sport throughout the country.

The first step is to film a reality-type documentary like Formula 1’s “Drive to Survive”, which they’re already working on. The second is to help one or two athletes break into the mainstream. In an article this week in USA Today, they asked how, for example, Sydney McLaughlin, 400m hurdles champion and world record holder, could do it, and the answer was clear: more victories, more charisma. Today, in the United States, the only figure known to the uninitiated is Allyson Felix thanks to her extensive records and her war with Nike to defend pregnant athletes. But she is retiring. Despite its success on the track, the US certainly cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to promoting the sport.