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The Scene in Eugene: COVID-19 Isolates Athletes, While New Hayward Field Shines

Our man on the ground reveals how COVID-19 has affected the Olympic Trials, and how athletes and fans are reacting to the new Hayward Field. 

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It’s just after 7 p.m. on June 17 on the eve of the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, and the Wild Duck Café is packed and overflowing with track-crazy patrons eating dinner, clanking beer glasses and reacquainting with old friends.

Located about three blocks from the Hayward Field track stadium, “The Duck,” as it is known colloquially, is where people gather before and after each day’s events at the Olympic Trials, just as it has been during big track meets for decades. While there are plenty of random fans who have traveled far and wide to be at the Trials — which were, of course, delayed a year along with the Tokyo Olympics because of the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s also a who’s who of the running industry and the sport of track and field. 

A quick glance across the room on this night, it’s easy to spot Brooks Beasts coach Danny Mackey, two-time U.S. 5,000-meter run champion Lauren Fleshman, Hansons-Brooks Distance Project coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson, three-time Australian Olympian Lee Troop, and noted track historian Mike Fanelli, among many other athletes, coaches, race directors and more.

“As always, ‘The Duck’ is the place to be,” says Fanelli, who was also in Eugene for the 2008, 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, as well as the 1980 event that was held even though the U.S. had already boycotted the Moscow Olympics. “Every time you walk in here, it seems like old times.”

No Fraternizing

Although you wouldn’t know it if you visited The Duck, this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials are still under strict COVID-19 health and safety regulations dictated by the State of Oregon and Lane County Public Health. Oregon was able to relax its public gathering and events standards in early June as COVID-19 case prevalence dropped and vaccination rates increased, but USA Track & Field (USATF) still has to follow rigid protocols at the newly reconstructed Hayward Field. According to Lane County Public Health, in the week before the Olympic Trials opened, 136 people were COVID-19-positive, 11 people were hospitalized with it and six residents were killed by the virus.

Athletes have been sequestered away from fans and media, both at the behest of USATF and by their own coaches to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. COVID tests are mandatory every 48 hours for athletes, coaches, officials, broadcasters, journalists and others who have access to the stadium and temperature checks are mandatory for all fans entering the stadium on race-day. With the Tokyo Olympics teetering on cancellation up until the past few weeks because of COVID-19 concerns, the virus is being taken seriously in and around Hayward Field.

Last Sunday, Dr. Robert Chapman, USATF’s director of sports science and medicine, announced to athletes via email that one athlete, one coach and one meet official were forced into quarantine, along with one other unvaccinated athlete who came into contact with one of the infected. That’s a horrible way to miss out on what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to compete in this Olympic-qualifying meeting in a stunning new track and field facility.

Sha’Carri Richardson on the post-race Zoom interview
Sha’Carri Richardson on the post-race Zoom interview Photo: USATF

Even the media interview process is different. In the past and at most major international track meets, athletes leave the track and pass through what’s known as the “mixed zone,” where reporters ask questions before athletes are then shuttled through to drug-testing stations and eventually to an athletes-only area where they can connect with coaches. But this year, because of COVID-19 precautions, the mixed zone interviews are done via Zoom, with reporters, like me, tuning in from wherever we are: In the stadium, at the coffee shop next to Hayward, on the street with a phone. While it’s not an ideal process — submitting questions via the chat function on Zoom — the interface has been pretty smooth and USATF has handled it well. 

One big difference, however, is that during other years, most athletes are usually available for additional interviews after they do a cool-down run or on their off days, and are often found hanging around at local restaurants, doing shakeout runs on Pre’s Trail and at brand events. But athletes have generally been more scarce in Eugene this week because of the COVID-19 concerns, especially those who are competing in additional events or have already made the team.

One other COVID-19 effect: the new stadium, built to be a world-class track facility with 12,650 spectator seats, has been less than half full. Only 5,519 fans were admitted for Monday’s Day 4 events — but they were vociferously engaged in every event just as in previous years when the old Hayward Field was at full capacity (more on that in a bit). 

Despite these restrictions, the Trials have largely been deemed a smashing success. Although the weather has been unbearably hot at times — peaking at 94 degrees on Monday during the women’s 1,500-meter finals — the running, jumping and throwing action through the first four days of the eight-day meet has been exceptional in both prelims and finals. 

There have been many extraordinary individual efforts. Among the moments, too many to note, a few that stand out include Abbey Cooper running solo and achieving the Olympic-qualifying standard in her 5,000m preliminary heat on June 18, Elle Purrier running away with the women’s 1,500m final in a Trials record time of 3:58.03, Clayton Murphy winning the men’s 800m in a world-leading 1:43.17 and Sean McGorty recovering from a shoe mishap to barely make it to the finals of the 3,000m steeplechase.

Elle Purrier St. Pierre competes in the Women’s 1500 Meters Final during day four of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 21, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Hayward Field is Dead, Long Live Hayward Field

About that new stadium: Many purists had lamented the demise of the original Hayward Field, which was considered a grand old cathedral of track and field akin to Wrigley Field or Carnegie Hall, and fused with the indomitable spirit and mystique of the late Steve Prefontaine. The venue for hundreds of collegiate and international track meets during nearly a century of service that began in 1921, the facility was badly in need of renovation, especially after Eugene was awarded the opportunity to host the 2021 World Championships (which were pushed back to July 2022 because of the pandemic). 

A fast and furious reconstruction process began in 2018 and was completed last summer. Where historic wooden grandstands and bleachers once stood is now a state-of-the-art steel, concrete, glass and wood facility poised to keep Eugene “Track Town USA” for the next 100 years. Athletes have given the facilities high marks, not only because the track is fast and energetic but because, like old Hayward, the fans are intimately close and the acoustics are loud and invigorating.

“It’s a masterpiece,” says Murphy, who won the 800m at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field and went on to earn a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. “It’s the best facility I’ve ever run in. I have run in Olympic stadiums in London, Rio and the Bird’s Nest (in Beijing) that were built for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and huge crowds. The new Hayward Field feels like old Hayward, which was intimate and small, but with a bigger stadium around it. When you’re running, you feel like you’re running in an Olympic stadium, but with the Hayward crowd in it. It was loud and rocking during the 800 final even though it might have only been half full.”

The attention to detail paid in the design of the new facility is remarkable, with unobstructed sightlines and cushioned seats for all spectators in a two-tier, theatre-style bowl configuration. Plus the pedestrian walkways and steps are covered with the same all-weather material that’s on the nine-lane track. There’s a six-lane, 140-meter straightaway and a 280-meter loop in the lower levels of the stadium, plus discipline-specific warm-up areas for long jump, triple jump, throws and pole vault, as well as underwater treadmills, treatment rooms, meeting rooms and athlete lounges.  

You’ll find plenty of bathroom facilities — something that old Hayward lacked — plus themed food stations named after prominent athletes, including Ashton’s Eatins (named for two-time Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton) and English’s Garden (named for 2016 Olympic gold medalist English Gardner). There’s also the striking Hayward Hall museum that includes shrines to Prefontaine, Bill Bowerman and Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, who were the largest benefactors of the new facility.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

But because no one can hang out at Hayward after each day’s events conclude, a large contingent of spectators wind up back at The Duck. That’s where fans, coaches and even athletes relive the day’s competitions, catch up on gossip and rumors and, of course, recall the good ol’ days. On Running used the venue to introduce its On Athletics Club elite athlete team, Brooks held a private party upstairs for coaches, athletes and agents and Athletic.net and RunnerSpace.com have been onsite producing live podcasts. 

Not long after the men’s 10,000-meter run finished on the evening of June 18, BYU athlete Connor Mantz, who finished sixth in the race in 27:59, met up with friends at the Duck at the end of his cool-down run still wearing his racing kit and race bib. Although Mantz quickly blended into the scene, Ryan Crouser brought down the house when he showed up, also still wearing his competition gear and bib, two hours after winning the men’s shot put with a world-record toss of 76 feet, 8 ¼ inches. The crowd recognized him when he walked in, and broke into a vigorous “USA! USA! USA!” chant. 

New world-record-holder Ryan Crouser celebrating at the Wild Duck Cafe Photo: Brian Metzler

Only in Track Town USA could something like that happen.

“There is no better place for an Olympic track and field trials than Eugene, where you have that European feeling of a small enough stadium where the athletes are surrounded by the most knowledgeable track and field fans in America,” Fanelli says. “In the old stadium, you could hear the thunderous pounding on the boards. It’s kind of hard to make that same sound (in the new Hayward), but regardless, the energy and the clapping and the whole experience. It’s still Hayward Field, it’s still Eugene. 

“If I had my druthers and I was the head of USATF, I would put forth a bill to state that all Olympic Trials into perpetuity be held right here in Track Town.”

Here’s how, who and what to watch during all the rest of the excitement in Track Town this week: PodiumRunner’s Guide to the Olympic Team Trials.