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PORTLAND HAS HAD LONG RUN WITH INDOOR TRACK

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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS


COURTESY: BENYON SPORTS - Indoor track and field competition has been going on this year at the House of Track in Northwest Portland, built by Benyon Sports, as a prelude to two major events coming soon to the Oregon Convention Center.The focus of the international track and field world will be on Portland in March, when the U.S. Indoor Championships and IAAF World Indoor Championships will take place a week apart at the Oregon Convention Center.

They will be the first indoor meets held in the city in nearly two decades.

Only old-timers will remember the Oregon Indoor, which began as the brainchild of legendary University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman in 1961 and continued to its slow death in 1997.

The Oregon Indoor was held annually during the winter months in Memorial Coliseum, beginning just a few months after the new facility opened its doors. Members of the Oregon Track Club and the Oregon State University track and field program ran the meet through the early years. Eugene’s Bob Newland served as meet director of the international night meet for its first 20 years. Fellow Eugene resident Al Tarpenning conducted the daytime developmental meet to the bitter end, and filled in as nighttime meet director after Newland until Tom Jordan took over in 1986.

A crowd of 7,100 was on hand for the inaugural meet, which featured New Zealand’s Murray Halberg breaking the world indoor 2-mile record by more than 10 seconds.

The ‘60s saw an assault on the record book, with China’s C.K. Yang bettering his personal record by 18 inches to set a world record of 16-3 1/4 in the pole vault; Oregon’s Neil Steinhauer setting a world record of 67-10 in the shot put in 1967, and Finland’s Altti Alarotu setting a European record and becoming the second person to clear 17 feet in 1968. There were appearances by many of the world’s greats, including four-time Olympic shot putter Parry O’Brien, distance-running stars Bill Baillie, Dyrol Burleson, Gerry Lindgren and Francie Larrieu, high jumper Otis Burrell and sprinter Jim Hines.

And there was Steve Prefontaine, who had a five-year run winning the 2-mile event from 1971-75. In 1972, Prefontaine — then a UO junior — nearly lapped the great Jim Ryun to win in a collegiate-record 8:26.6. Pre broke the American record the next year in 8:24.6, edging Stanford’s Don Kardong before a packed house. In 1974, Pre lowered his U.S. standard to 8:22.2.

There were major international entrants every year, but the staple of the Oregon Indoor through the1960s and ‘70s were athletes from Oregon and Oregon State, both among the nation’s top 10 programs at the time. The meet drew crowds of 8,000 to 10,000 through those years.

“There weren’t many indoor meets on the West Coast in those years,” says Chuck McNeil, 82, an assistant coach at Oregon State beginning in 1964 who went on to become the Beavers’ head coach. “Oregon and Oregon State established the meet for both of us to have another meet for our athletes to get involved with during the indoor season. We had nice crowds every year.”

Things changed when world-class athletes began reaping guaranteed appearance fees in the mid-’70s. By 1985, the Oregon Indoor had become largely a regional meet with a smattering of big names.

The original plywood running surface — the first portable indoor track west of Kansas — was used for 21 years. There was no artificial cover, and the millions of spike marks turned the track into a mass of miniature craters.

In 1982, former Oregon State runner Jose Cruz — who worked in environmental services and in lumber and marble importing/exporting in Portland — was called upon under the direction of Nike to design and construct a new track. Cruz was in the first year of a 25-year run as a member of the meet’s board of directors.

“It was the first time I had designed anything like that,” says Cruz, 79, now retired and living in Sedona, Ariz. “The highest bank was 4 feet (the previous track’s height was 3 feet), and it turned out to be a little too high. I redesigned it and lowered it 6 inches the next year.”

The six-lane, 200-meter rainbow-colored track with a plastic coating took Cruz about a month to complete. It was used through the ‘80s.

“I wasn’t sure how the track would fit together in the coliseum,” Cruz says. “It fit perfectly. (Former OSU coach) Berny Wagner got the plywood donated from Longview. People donated space for us to store the track at a warehouse in Hillsboro.”

The meet got a lift in 1986 when Jordan was hired as meet director. Jordan, a former Stanford and Illinois runner, had moved to Eugene in 1982 and had served as the Prefontaine Classic director for two years when he came on board for the Oregon Indoor.

“Tom was a tremendous promoter,” Cruz says. “He was largely responsible for building the meet back up.”

The first year under Jordan’s direction, on a shoestring budget, the meet’s attendance was 3,800 despite a field that featured such names as Jimmy Howard, Jarmila Kratochvilova, Doug Padilla, Marcus O’Sullivan, Ruth Wysocki and Brian Oldfield. Howard high-jumped 7-7 3/4 to earn the outstanding performer award.

Then a title sponsor was landed thanks to Tarpenning, long-time coach at Lane Community College and the father of Olympic pole vaulter Kory Tarpenning.

“On a plane flight, Al happened to sit next to the general manager of Pacific Northwest Bell,” Jordan says. “Al was always filled with enthusiasm for track and field and pretty much sold the GM on the concept of sponsoring the meet. Al and I met with the GM and sealed the deal.”

Jordan added KOIN-TV as co-sponsor for the 1987 meet.

That year, the Oregon Indoor was the second stop on the 14-meet Mobil Grand Prix world indoor circuit. A sellout crowd of 9,368 was on hand for a stellar meet featuring three current world record-holders and six American record-holders. Earl Bell set a world best by clearing 19-2 3/4 in the pole vault. World outdoor 110-hurdles record-holder Renaldo Nehemiah won the 55 hurdles in a hand-timed 6.9. It could have been a world record — the coliseum’s unofficial record put him at 6.87, faster than his own WR of 6.89. But the Accutrack electronic timing device malfunctioned, disallowing any record.

“I can still remember going out onto the concourse 20 minutes before the meet and looking down at the ticket booths, where they were telling people the event was sold out and they were out of luck,” Jordan says. “I was never so glad to see people pissed off.”

The meet did well at the gate through 1990, when the Oregon Indoor board bought the track used for the San Francisco Examiner Indoor, which had folded, for $15,000. U.S. West came on as the title sponsor in 1989, but dropped out after 1992. Jordan resigned his position, and the meet limped along with smaller crowds until its final curtain call in 1996.

“After we lost U.S. West, everything was difficult money-wise,” says Cruz, who ran the meet during its final four years of existence. “One year, we couldn’t pay the printer that put out the meet program. We paid the bill the next year.”

A meet was scheduled for February 1997 but never came off.

“We had tried to get Nike to help us, and they may have given us a few thousand bucks, but they weren’t interested in getting more involved, which was strange to me,” Cruz says. “They had another agenda.

“Then I could not get a confirmed date at the coliseum from the Trail Blazers. They would not give me a date for the meet. They started playing games why they didn’t want to give us a Saturday date — they wanted it on a Sunday or Monday night. It was really frustrating. Without a weekend date, we could not function.”

Now, for the time in 20 years, indoor track returns to Portland.

“It’s fantastic,” Jordan says. “Kudos to Vin Lananna, TrackTown USA and USA Track & Field for getting it done. The World Indoors is setting the bar very high. I’ll be there as a spectator, for sure.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers