I admit that I had lost interest in the Olympic Games over the years. Maybe I am to blame, I got addicted to the backstories rather than the sports (although I really blame Kathleen Sullivan and her fuzzy sweaters during the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo).
Soon every event was televised with a bio – tragic stories, comeback stories. Over the years, the games began to feel predictable as the athletes were lost in the overblown music that signaled what we were to feel. The actual events were condensed to nothing more than a highlight reel (time zones being used as an excuse for not showing anything live).
The stories behind the athletes are amazing, but I want to watch the sports too.
The field is name for Bill Hayward, the University’s legendary coach from 1904 to 1947, who built the track and field team into a powerhouse. In 1948, another legendary coach would lead the team – Bill Bowerman (a co-founder of Nike).
Hayward Field was built in 1919 for just football, but a six-lane track was installed in 1921. When Autzen Stadium was built in 1967, Hayward Field became a track and field only facility, hosting U.S. Olympic trials in 1972, 1976, 1980, 2008 and now 2012.
At the 1972 trials at Hayward Field, Steve Prefontaine set the American record for the 5000 meters race. Prefontaine, who died at the age of 24, is one of the legends of the University of Oregon and of distance running. He trained under Bowerman, winning seven NCAA titles, and held the American records in track from 2,000 through 10,000 meters.
I have never been to an Olympic Games, but with the track and field trials just an easy trek from Portland, I jumped at the chance to attend – to watch the events. Although I’ve watched the Olympic events on TV, I don’t recall going to a track and field event even in high school. It has a very different feel in person. There’s both down time and then several events happening at the same time.
But no pre-packaged script.
Once I settled into the pace of the events, the afternoon became about the athletes. Not being told what to feel, I felt like I was watching the track and field events for the first time.
With the shorter races, like the women’s 200 meter event that afternoon, their speed was obvious. Their legs were nothing but a blur. With longer events, it was hard to get a sense of their pace. They make it look so easy, they could be jogging. Then I realized they were completing laps around sixty seconds. To give myself some perspective, I tried picturing myself on the track – with my pace.
First, my running gait, well it doesn’t look like that. I’m going to leave it at that.
(Okay, my feet don’t leave the ground like that and I look like I’m on the verge of falling down. And in sixty seconds I would look like I was still tying my shoes yet winded.)
The 400 meter hurdles was like an optical illusion. They don’t even break stride. I am nearly certain they simply floated over the hurdles. In the grandstands, as we made our way up to our seats, most of us gripped the handrail to hoist our bodies up to the next step and here these women were flying over hurdles.
The steeplechase surprised me. Not having seen one run before, it sounded like an odd event with its obstacles, including water. Like with hurdles, the runners must leap over a barrier. Unlike the hurdles, the barrier in a steeplechase does not fall down when it is hit. I can’t imagine leaping over the barrier, let alone trying to do that in a pack. Watching these runners, there was a flow to them.
The day ended with the men’s 5000 meter finals. The backstory to the athletes in the race is fascinating. Bernard Lagat, 37, has won Olympic medals, but not a gold medal. Galen Rupp, a hometown favorite, was born in Oregon, attended the University of Oregon and is the current American record holder for the 10,000. And Lopez Lomong who was born in South Sudan, eventually escaping after having been kidnapped, and who now lives now in Oregon. I learned all that after the race.
The race – without a soundtrack – was thrilling to watch. Watching twelve laps, I could only imagine the intense training needed to compete at this level. The race came down to these three men.
As the runners would pass a section of the crowd, the crowd would clap. A clapping version of the wave. With four laps to go, the clapping became constant, growing louder with each lap. With two laps to go everyone was standing.
Lagat leading at the final turn.
Rupp closing in.
The finish line steps away.
You could feel the entire stadium take a breath.
Rupp crossed first.
By crossing first, Rupp broke a meet record that has been on the books since 1972 when it was set by Prefontaine 40 years ago at Hayward Field.
So unscripted, I forgot I had a camera.