As the birthplace of Nike and the home of famed runner Steve Prefontaine, Eugene, Oregon, must have seemed like a natural for hosting a prestigious track and field event like the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. But after a 25-year hiatus, Eugene still hadn’t been selected as the host city since its last run in 1980. With the bid for the 2008 trials all but dead, there was nevertheless a spark of hope that new life could be breathed into the city’s chances.
In 2005, Vin Lananna was appointed as associate athletic director for Olympic development at the University of Oregon. Recruited to transform the historic sport of track and field at a local level, Lananna was tasked with re-establishing Eugene as the focal point for the sport at a time when the city didn’t have many recent accomplishments to hang its laurels on.
“The sport needed a spark,” explains Lananna, now president of TrackTown USA. “Due to its rich history and tradition, the most knowledgeable fan base in America, and unwavering support from the community, I felt the only place the event could happen was in Eugene. Thanks to key supporters, we were able to secure the 2008 bid to hold the trials at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field—hallowed ground in our sport. In the end, our vision for connecting the sport’s past, present and future won the day.”
Once Eugene had secured the bid, plans were laid for the implementation of the event’s myriad components. Along the way, Northwest Event Management was hired to help manage and coordinate the event’s logistics. In business since 1989, the company was skilled at planning track and field championships and road runs, but the Olympic Trials would take NEM’s skill set to a whole new level.
NEM business partners Barbara Kousky and Tom Jordan were hired to act as the business managers, and began by going over notes that had been kept from the 1980 trials. “They were pretty quaint,” says Jordan. “It was literally like looking at the difference between a Model-T and a Ferrari. We really had to reinvent the experience.”
Kousky and Jordan set about establishing a strong cadre of volunteers. Their portion of the equation was deemed to be everything outside of the field of play: athletic services, credentialing, marketing, entertainment, security, ticketing, transportation, volunteer services—all of these fell under the domain of NEM.
“Security in particular was extremely important,” notes Jordan. “We had involvement from the local police, FBI, Homeland Security and more. So we ended up hiring a company that provided metal detectors and trained security personnel because it was extremely important we got that particular component right.
“We also had an incident command structure with on-site representatives and an office for dealing with issues that might arise during the competition. It was more a matter of being ‘safe than sorry,’ but we never regretted our decision to do so.”
With approximately 1,000 support personnel and the same number of competitors, the trials were held over an eight-day period. With many of the world’s eyes trained on who would be the next group of Olympic track athletes, dozens of accompanying international media reps were also in attendance.
“One of the major changes we noted from previous trials was the complexity of the needs of the media,” explains Jordan. “Previously, it was just one crew from ABC; then it became media from all over the world with increased technical requirements for research and transmittal. Another notable change from before was the need for a sizable revenue stream to underwrite all of the associated costs.”
With no funding coming from the Olympic Committee, the revenue to host the 2008 trials came from a variety of sources: ticket sales, grants, government entities, private donations and corporate sponsorships.
The Local Organizing Committee for the 2008 trials was also particularly invested in sustainability. Oregon is known for being a very green state (both topographically and environmentally), so Jordan and Kousky had to pay particular attention to coordinating a recycling program specifically for the trials. “We created stringent guidelines for recycling, going so far as to utilize volunteers to monitor the trash cans and bins for used plastic water bottles,” explains Jordan. “We were extremely diligent in how we handled our waste and diverted as much from the landfill as we could.” As a result, the LOC won a sustainability award that year from the International Olympic Committee, and Travel Lane County (the local CVB) produced a handbook on sustainability to share with other communities for use at similar events.
At the Olympic Trials, the main focus is always on the athletes themselves; however, a very special event was coordinated outside of Hayward Field, which took place at a local winery. It was a reunion of previous Olympic track and field qualifiers who’d run on the same track in Eugene back in 1980. These athletes had a particularly special bond, as they’d all qualified to attend the Moscow Olympics but had been unable to participate when the U.S. boycotted the event for political reasons.
NEM and the LOC also sought to include as many attendees as possible via a festival area that surrounded the field. “It allowed us to increase the footprint of the event,” explains Kari Westlund, currently the CEO of Travel Lane County who worked as the marketing and communications liaison at the 2008 trials. “We wanted to elevate the execution of the event beyond what had been done previously, so we set out to build a community network between government and private sectors. We created a sense of shared ownership and civic pride. We’d always thought of ourselves as a running town, but we really created a new passion amongst those who weren’t previously interested in the sport.”
As a result of the overwhelming support Eugene received from the local community, sponsors, the LOC and others, as well as the kudos they’d garnered from participants and attendees, the city set its sights on capturing the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Trials. After receiving the nod from the Olympic Committee, there came a decision to create an organization devoted exclusively to coordinating track and field events. The result was TrackTown USA, spearheaded by Vin Lananna.
“We were keenly aware of the fact that we were now being viewed as a destination capable of hosting such an important event, so it was important for us to continue to get it right,” says Westlund. “We might have the only full-time, professional staff dedicated to producing track and field events in the U.S. They’re tasked with bringing all of the various strands to light, working alongside the Eugene, Cascades & Coast Sports Commission.
“When we moved into discussions as to how to make the 2012 trials even bigger-and-better, we knew we wanted to increase the availability of seeing the trials more so than before. That meant figuring out how to get more spectators into seats and into the fan festival area.”
With upwards of 10,000 people watching the events live on big screens inside the festival tent, thousands more spectators were accommodated at the 2012 trials in the fan zone. Inside Hayward Field, towers of seats with sky boxes and a media station was constructed which increased seats by roughly 5,000 (adding to the permanent seating of 12,500), thereby increasing ticket revenue.
New hotels had opened between 2008 and 2012, creating a larger local inventory for visiting athletes, their support staff, family, friends and fans, as well as media and spectators. Travel Lane County also worked hand-in-hand with their hospitality partners to make sure hotel room rates remained affordable (especially for athletes on a limited budget), while simultaneously making sure to cater to professional athletes and corporate sponsors by offering more upscale amenities.
As for what the future will look like (Eugene and TrackTown USA were awarded the 2016 Olympic trials in April, 2013), Westlund says, “It’s been an evolving process. You keep what’s worked, tweak what didn’t and try something new to see how it might improve your results.
“But in the end, it’s the event itself that underscores why we’re here doing what we do. When you watch someone like Olympic decathlete Ashton Eaton, a ‘hometown boy’ from Portland, set a world record for his sport you can literally hear the stands rumble as thousands of fans cheer him on. It’s a feeling unlike any other.”
“We promised (the Olympic committee) an unprecedented focus on the athletes and a celebration of the sport in a manner that would create an unforgettable fan experience. It ignited a track and field revival that continues to this day. The impact has been felt.”
Photo Credit (header): Eugene, Cascades & Coast Sports