American track and field athletes showed up. Do American fans?
Kara Winger came to the World Athletics Championships as one of the most successful javelin throwers in American history. A nine-time national champion, she had endured injuries, including two knee surgeries, to compete in four Olympics.
On Friday, however, Winger was in fifth place before her final throw at Hayward Field, where the world championships were being held. She had never won a medal in global competition and plans to retire at the end of the season. This was her last shot.
“I’m two hours from my hometown,” said Winger, 36, who grew up in Vancouver, Washington, “and I felt like every single person in that stadium was cheering for me.”
For the first time, the World Athletics Championships were being held in the United States – and American athletes like Winger made the most of the experience. Winger saved her best for last and won the silver medal with a wild final throw. She was still celebrating when Sydney McLaughlin, one of America’s most talented young stars, won the women’s 400-meter hurdles by breaking her own world record.
“It was incredibly fun to be a part of, to see the whole Team USA vibe – just to see the people all around the track and around the oval completely dominating them,” said Winger.
Track and field officials hoped that hosting the World Championships in the United States would help revitalize American interest in the sport. And while athletes like Winger have delivered adoring fans in Eugene, which has long been an athletics hotspot, meeting up isn’t a panacea. As Winger can attest, progress requires commitment.
“We have to be present in this market,” said Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics, the global governing body of athletics. “It’s important. It doesn’t take its weight off.”
The World Championships were a resounding success for American athletes. By Sunday, the last day of the 10-day competition, the United States had won 28 medals, 10 of them gold, far surpassing all other countries. Next came Ethiopia with 10 medals, including four gold medals. Athing Mu won the women’s 800 meters on Sunday night to increase the total.
American men swept the podium in the 100 meter and shot put. Noah Lyles won the men’s 200 meters. The women’s 4×100 relay stormed past Jamaica to claim an unexpected world title, while the men’s 4×100 relay, notoriously clumsy in years past, held onto the baton long enough to to get silver.
And even when Allyson Felix, one of the most decorated athletes in US history, made her final appearance in a national team uniform, a new generation of stars has already emerged to fill the void.
“It was really great to have a reunion in the States where my whole family could be there and it certainly made it a lot more enjoyable,” McLaughlin said after her race. “Knowing that I’m in the same time zone that I train in and all the advantages that that brings on home soil has really worked to our advantage.”
There was a lot of energy in the stadium, but the event’s national reach seemed more limited.
Last weekend, just over 2 million people tuned in to NBC to watch the championships on Saturday and Sunday – fewer viewers than those who watched NBC’s same-day coverage of the British Open, which had 3.3 million viewers on Saturday and 4, 5 million for Sunday’s final round attracted.
It didn’t help that viewers needed a chart to figure out what and how to watch. During the week, the World Cups were broadcast on USA Network, a cable channel owned by NBC, and on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock. (Athletics landed on Peacock when the US featured professional wrestling.)
The World Championships are not an ideal spectator event. Spread over well over a week, the gathering will test the patience of even the most dedicated fan. Coe left open the possibility of recalibrating — and maybe compressing — the schedule in the future.
“I will never throw the philosophy and history of our sport overboard,” he said. “But I think we have to realize that 10 days, pretty much morning and evening, is quite a challenge.”
At the same time, Coe listed some of the inherent benefits that would help increase the popularity of athletics in the United States, starting with its strong national team that could have paid rent for the time their athletes spent on the medal podium at Hayward Field . There are around 50 million people in the United States who identify themselves as avid runners, Coe said. And at the high school level, hundreds of thousands of teenagers compete in track and field and cross-country races.
But the United States has an “overloaded, complicated market” for esports, Coe said.
“I’m probably not going to be Mr. Popular for saying this, but I don’t think the sport has been marketed as well as it could have been in the United States in years past,” Coe said. “I think for many years there was a complacency that going back to the medal tally from the Olympics or World Championships was enough. I think there is a much greater recognition now, which is important in itself but not enough.”
Organizers across the United States are experimenting with a variety of more fan-friendly events. They want top American athletes to stay in the country longer – most pros spend their summers in Europe to compete on the Diamond League circuit – and to let fans get up close and personal with the action at more compact gatherings.
Ahead of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, World Athletics and USA Track & Field have partnered to create an initiative called Project USA to encourage investment in the sport. World Athletics is funding a Netflix-style documentary series Drive to Survive that has increased the mainstream appeal of Formula 1 auto racing. Coe said a road racing world championship was in the works, with several “high-profile cities across the US” expressing interest in hosting events.
Coe also wants to continue developing the Continental Tour, which acts in part as a sort of feeder system for the more elevated events in athletics.
“When we started the Continental Tour, there wasn’t a single American city that agreed to do it,” he said. “Now we have two or three and we have to expand that.”