Compared to other pandemic-inspired dystopias, the rise of the avatar sports fan wasn’t horrible, so much as mildly depressing. The NBA’s Disneyland bubble (and recent All-Star game) had “virtual bleachers” where viewers could glimpse their spectral selves on screen. Then there was the strange analog equivalent where people paid $100 for the privilege of attending the Super Bowl as a cardboard cutout. In an era of increasing atomization, these images felt like a vision of a nightmare future where yet another in-person communal experience had been phased out. Last March, when asked about the prospect of competing in an empty arena, LeBron James’s initial response was, essentially, forget it. “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing,” he said.
For track and field athletes, on the other hand, one could make the obvious joke that competing without spectators—as many runners did last year—would be business as usual. But even as having vacant seats at major championships remains a recurring issue for the sport, there are still places where, in pre-pandemic times, one could reliably find an infectious mass enthusiasm for watching fit people chase each other around the oval. In the United States, the most obvious example is, of course, Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, which is slated to host its fourth consecutive Olympic Trials in June. The venue’s combination of historical significance and high-energy fan base have always given it a special aura, colloquially referred to as the “Hayward Magic.” Even for those who don’t buy into the idea that occult forces might be wafting through the air of the Pacific Northwest, the quadrennial spectacle of the Trials at Hayward has delivered some big-time moments—starting in 1972 when Steve Prefontaine broke the American record in the 5,000-meters to punch his ticket to his first, and only, Olympic Games.
“This is a very special place for people who are really passionate about running,” says Eugene resident and two-time Olympic Trials champion Nick Symmonds. At the 2008 Trials, Symmonds was the first finisher in the famous “Oregon sweep” of the men’s 800-meters, where all podium spots were claimed by Eugene-based runners—to the roaring delight of the home crowd. While some have argued that it would be “better for the sport,” if U.S. track and field were less Oregon-centric, there’s no question that Hayward’s reputation for track fanaticism is justified. “At Hayward, you can have 10,000 people watching an early-season college dual meet,” Symmonds told me. According to a 2018 survey by the University of Oregon Foundation, the average attendance for weekday and weekend track meets at Hayward over the previous five years was 6,146 and 6,259 spectators, respectively. Those are impressive numbers for U.S. track and field. Symmonds told me that, as a professional, he had raced in national championships at other big venues across the country, like Des Moines and Sacramento, and likened the experience to competing in a “ghost town.” As he put it, “There was no one in the stands there to watch other than mom and dad.”
Unfortunately, the lingering reality of the pandemic might mean that even the Hayward Field Olympic Trials are destined for ghost town status. With fewer than 100 days to go (the Trials are scheduled to take place June 18th through 27th), it’s still uncertain whether spectators will be allowed to attend. COVID infection rates might be dropping as vaccines become more widely available, but the likelihood of packed stands by early summer seems remote.
“We are certainly hopeful that we will have fans at the Olympic Trials, but we are far from certain that that is going to be the case,” Michael Reilly, the CEO of TrackTown USA, the local organizing committee for the Trials, told me. Reilly generously pointed out that infection rates in Oregon had been “increasingly good.” Although the state is not yet allowing spectators at sporting events, Reilly said that his team was working with co-organizers like the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and USA Track and Field to apply for an exemption to submit to the governor’s office.
For now, the idea is to plan for a scenario in which fans will be allowed to attend with appropriate safety measures—testing, masks, social distancing, etc. (Reilly told me that it was still too soon to say whether the vaccine could play a role in any safety protocols.) “We are building operating plans that anticipate that spectators will be at the Trials,” Reilly told me. “If, for whatever reason, we can’t have fans, we will be prepared to go either way. Fortunately, many of the operations of the event, as it relates to conducting a track and field competition, really don’t depend on whether there are spectators.”
In a tantalizing irony, Hayward last year completed an extensive renovation that more than doubled its max seating capacity to 25,000. (The permanent seating capacity for the new facility is listed at 12,650, but it can be expanded to accommodate larger crowds.) The project, which is estimated to have cost around $270 million, transformed a relatively quaint facility into an opulent mega-stadium that includes a ten-story tower, a “hydrotherapy room,” and an on-site barbershop.
So far, the only athletes who have gotten to experience this architectural epiphany are members of the University of Oregon’s track and field team, leading Eugene’s Register Guard to posit that Hayward 2.0 is currently “little more than the most spectacular collegiate training facility in the nation.” As the paper reports, the university is hoping to host outdoor track meets later in the spring, culminating in the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which are scheduled to take place the weekend before the Trials.
Should both of these events end up happening without any spectators there’s still the silver lining that, hey, at least they weren’t canceled. And while it might be tempting to assume that all athletes prefer to race in front of a packed house, that, of course, isn’t necessarily the case. Molly Huddle, who won the women’s 5,000 and 10,000-meters at the 2016 Trials and will be looking to make her third Olympic team this June, told me that the first time she competed at a Hayward Trials in 2008, she was so stimulated by the crowd energy that she ended up running poorly. She says she had to consciously “de-sensitize” at subsequent Trials in order to run well enough to make the team. “It will probably not feel like Hayward, because of the new stadium and because there are no knowledgeable, dedicated fans there like there always are,” Huddle says about the prospect of competing at a spectator-less Trials. “Usually, I just try and pretend it’s just a mid-season meet to take the pressure off. So it will be easier to do that.”
Meanwhile, the organizing committee for the Tokyo Games has yet to decide on whether overseas fans will be allowed to attend. (According to a press release from the International Olympic Committee, a decision is expected in the coming weeks.) To be honest, it’s hard to imagine that there will actually be a ban on international visitors—not least because the Japanese government and the city of Tokyo reportedly spent more than $1.25 billion on the new Japan National Stadium—but, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to never say never.