I was a little worried when, at this year’s Pre Classic track meet in Eugene, Oregon, I heard that there were some big-time renovation plans in store for Hayward Field, the University of Oregon’s hallowed stadium. The venue had recently been named as the host of the 2021 IAAF World Championships in athletics, which will mark the first time the biannual event will be held in the U.S. (Eugene was awarded the World Championships without a formal bidding process for 2021, which has understandably raised some concerns, though the same thing happened with Osaka in 2007.)
Among other IAAF stipulations, Hayward will need to increase its capacity to 30,000, nearly triple the number of seats it currently holds. Though exact figures have not yet been made available, the project, which will be underwritten by a subsidiary of the University of Oregon Foundation, is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars.
But, as any two-bit songwriter will tell you, there are some things money can’t buy.
Like legacy. Hayward Field is, without a doubt, the most famous track and field stadium in the U.S., if not the world. Ask any serious track fan about the “Hayward Magic,” and they will likely have a story about this-or-that race, which came down to the bell lap and brought the entire east grandstands to its feet as the sky darkened over the Douglas fir-lined horizon.
Or something along those lines.
The sky was a brilliant blue on that morning last May when I was sitting in the east grandstands myself. I was watching a group of local school kids run a workout on the same track where, later that day, many of the world’s finest athletes would be competing in the Pre Classic.
Would kids still have this kind of access once Hayward Field had been given a facelift? Would the place that was home to the likes of Bill Bowerman and Steve Prefontaine be transformed into a sleek and soulless behemoth?
Seeking answers to these and other questions, I spoke to Vin Lananna, U of O’s associate athletic director, head coach of next year’s men’s U.S. Olympic track team, and resident expert on the Hayward Field renovation project.
OUTSIDE: In a nutshell, what are the most significant changes that are coming to Hayward Field?
LANANNA: In broad strokes, I would say that the biggest changes will be that we will have a stadium which is very spectator and media-friendly, with the ability to accommodate the technological advances that are desperately needed in the sport of track and field. It’s always been an athlete-friendly stadium and we will continue to do everything we can to innovate so that the athletes have the easiest access to the facility and the highest performance track and field venue in the world. And the last piece, which is very important to us, is that there’s tremendous history at Hayward Field, and we have been doing everything we can to capture the essence of that heritage.
When you say that the stadium will become more spectator and media-friendly, what do you mean? What are some specific examples?
Right now, from a fan perspective, our seats are pretty close together. The west grandstands haven’t been upgraded since they were put it in, so the seats are bench seats. With chair-back seats, there will be easier access, in and out. There’ll be elevators, handrails, concession stands–an upgrade of all the things that in the past have made for a quaint, but also uncomfortable, fan experience at Hayward. On the west side, the sidelines will be expanded to give fans a great view of the finish line.
We have always looked at it in the sense that the United States, a country that has these great track teams and these phenomenal athletes, should have a national stadium, a place people gravitate to.
From a media perspective, our press box has not been great. It’s always been accessible, easy for the media to do its work, but a lot of the things you would have to do for television we’ve had to do on a temporary basis, which has made it rather labor-intensive to set up for meets. There hasn’t been enough room on the outside of the track to accommodate TV camera positions–we’ve always had to build these temporary parts. That will change, so in the future [the media] will just be able to show up and plug in.
You mention that Hayward has been a “quaint” experience for fans, and in answering the first question, you alluded to capturing and, presumably, maintaining the heritage of the place. How is this reflected in the renovation plans?
It’s been central to the whole project. Tinker Hatfield [the chief designer behind the renovations, who is himself an alum of the University of Oregon track team and, as a shoe designer, has designed many of the most recognizable Nike models] has coordinated with our past athletes [to get their feedback]. Our east grandstands will look exactly the same. We will do all of the upgrades to be sure it can last the next 50 or 60 years, but when one walks into Hayward Field, one will be struck by the same venue that one has been struck by for the last 50 or 60 years. We’ve maintained the proximity of lane 8, where athletes can slap the hands of spectators.
I think that the overwhelming feedback from, literally, hundreds of athletes who have enjoyed their experience at Hayward has indicated that they really love how we’re keeping the historic element. If one were to take an aerial view of [future] Hayward Field, it will have the same look it currently does. But when one is sitting in the stands, in the west or the east, it will be a much more comfortable experience.
It’s difficult to do any great restoration project, any preservation of history, but we are very happy with what our architects and designers have done to make it a user-friendly facility, yet understanding and maintaining the history–not just knocking it down and building some new monstrosity that nobody would know what it is. People will know it’s Hayward Field.
Glad to hear it. I saw local kids running on the track when I was last there. Will amateur athletes have the same kind of access once the track has been renovated, or is it too early to say?
That’s one of the initial things that we hope to accomplish in redoing Hayward Field. We believe that Hayward Field and those stakeholders who have enjoyed their experiences at Hayward have helped to build a culture of accessibility to a community that has had a love affair with our sport for decades and decades. We feel very good about our ability to accommodate them.
To what extent is this renovation project a consequence of being given the World Championships in 2021? Were plans already in the works before that was on the table?
We were always going to make improvements to Hayward Field. There were things that we knew we needed to do since the first day I arrived on campus in 2005. It’s just complex when you take a great historic structure and you try to do all the things that I just outlined–there are a lot of challenges that go along with it. The footprint, the look, the feel . . .we’ve been working on it all along. Then, when we did receive the World Championships, we had other requirements on top of it, like number of spectators.
Our facility will have somewhere between 11,500 and 12,500 permanent seats, and we will do everything else with add-ons that will not be permanent. We do not want a facility that will be too big for our University of Oregon teams or the Pre Classic, or the NCAAs . . . for a one shot deal. But the World Championships certainly accelerated the [renovation] process.
It’s my understanding that 30,000 is the IAAF requirement. Does that mean that more than half of the seating for the World Championships will only be on a temporary basis?
That is exactly right. We’re backing into this. We know we need 30,000 seats, so we are figuring out what permanent structure needs to be in place for us to provide perfect, accessible and spectator-friendly seating for 30,000, and then we will build permanent structures based upon how we do that. That’s why I gave you the range of seating previously. If we need to get to 13,000 [permanent seats] we will build to that–the facility should easily expandable. Just like in London, where they built a facility, which accommodated the Olympic Games, and once the Olympics were over they had a perfectly usable, sustainable facility. That’s what we will do with this, too.
Last question. In (re)building this facility, do you guys hope to reinvigorate the sport of track and field in the United States?
I think you’ve answered your own question. That’s exactly how we look at this. We have always looked at it in the sense that the United States, a country that has these great [track] teams and these phenomenal athletes, should have a national stadium, a place people gravitate to. So the World Championships, getting it 2021 and building the brand of track and field around it, and having it be a sport that the public recognizes, is important. In order to do that, one has to have a facility that is totally track-dedicated. Our community is all-in on this. We feel confident that when this is over, it will provide a model that allows our sport to be sustainable. Our community has carried the sport for decades, and we want to be sure that what we have done is transportable to other communities as well.
Ed.’s Note: Renovations are slated to begin right after the U.S. Olympic Trials in June ’16. So if you want to visit Hayward before the sledgehammer does, do it soon.