For much of his adult life, Tom Jordan has been the steward of the Nike Prefontaine Classic. Tom Jordan wrote the most popular book on the late Steve Prefontaine, Pre! When David Hunter told me that his intention was to write on Tom Jordan, I was quite pleased.
Tom is juggling the 44th celebration of all that is track & field in Eugene, Oregon in a curious year. Jordan has to keep fans, the purists, his sponsor Nike, athletes and managers all happy. He does it with aplomb and little evidence of any reliance on any substance to relieve the stress.
Tom Jordan is a unique individual. His respect for Steve Prefontaine comes out in everything he does, 365 days a year. The Pre Classic is a sanctuary to our sport, and a celebration of all that Steve Prefontaine loved about the sport. We hope you enjoy this fine story from David Hunter!
May 26th, 2018
At the end of every May, a capacity crowd fills Eugene’s Hayward field – and legions more tune in to NBC or online – to witness the Prefontaine Classic, year in and year out what many consider to be the greatest one-day track & field gathering in the world. One of only 14 stops on the international Diamond League tour – and now the only DL meet held in the U.S. – the Pre meet always features starting lists containing a plethora of international Olympic and World Championship caliber competitors, many of whom are Oly and WC finalists and medalists. Perhaps due in large measure to the apparent ease and efficiency by which the gathering is unfurled every year, very few of the sport’s stalwarts really stop to reflect upon the year-round challenges that must be met to ensure this track & field jewel sparkles every year.
While Nike, of course, plays an essential sponsorship role and the Pre meet – which operates on an annual budget of approximately $3 million – relies on a squad of roughly 30 to handle every detail from athlete recruitment to hurdle placement, the buck stops with Tom Jordan, the long-standing Meet Director of the Prefontaine Classic.
Jordan smiles when asked to compare the 2018 edition of the Prefontaine Classic to the first Pre meet he presented during his 35 years leadership. “Wow,” chuckles Jordan. “35 years ago, there was no internet, no email, no faxes, no call waiting, there was one phone line, and [one of my colleagues] would regularly sit in my living room and answer phone calls for about 12 hours straight.” And there are other differences. “There were no agents,” notes the 69-year-old Meet Director. “So I was getting directly called by athletes. It was a much simpler time.” Jordan, who frequently offers reminders that the meet’s primary goal is to present track & field, is proud of the Pre legacy of assembling fields containing the world’s greatest athletes. “I think the product on the field of play is very similar now to the way it was then, except that we [now] have far more international participation.”
Now well into the 21st century, many sports – professional and otherwise – are exploring ways to embed an entertainment element into the sport’s presentation. “Athletics” – the granddaddy of all sports – is no exception as selected meets look to include animated mascots, competitor introductions complete with fog machines, field events showcased in urban settings, fan zones, post-meet concerts, pump-up music sent out over loudspeakers, and more. “It’s superfluous, so we don’t do that,” replies Jordan when asked about possible ancillary entertainment at Pre. “There is the possibility of expanding the event because it is only 2Â½ hours. So if you want to make it a destination event you’d have to have different events and you’d have to have entertainment areas and that kind of thing. And at this point, it’s just marginal.”
“I think we’re different,” suggests Jordan when commenting about the showier presentations in a number of European Diamond League venues. “I think most of the Diamond League meets are in large stadiums; they have a lot more glitz and glamour. If you’ve been to Brussels, they’ll have showgirls come out and make presentations. Everybody does it a little differently.” After pausing, Jordan adds, “We really concentrate on the track & field. That comes first. For the other venues, having a concert afterwards works. I don’t think it would work for us. Everybody makes their individual choices.”
Over the years, the affable Jordan has witnessed other changes in the sport and has had to choose how, if at all, to react. After the Diamond League dropped its only other American Diamond League meet at New York’s Randall’s Island, Jordan remains unsure as to whether that DL departure has provided any boost to Eugene attendance. “I’m not sure it does,” admits the Pre leader. “What the Diamond League affiliation does is bring attention to the quality of the meet. We have had some people come from overseas because they want to see the only Diamond League in America. 50 percent of our fan base is what I would term ‘local’, within the state of Oregon. I don’t think that being part of the Diamond League has made a significant difference now.”
A well-scripted change Jordan implemented several years ago was the addition of an elite and abbreviated Friday night twilight program. “Ah, necessity is the mother of invention,” proclaims Jordan in explaining the impetus behind the Friday night session. “The Diamond League format calls for having every event on alternating years, including all field events. And yet they want it within a 2Â½ hour window and that made it impossible. You can’t fit in a long jump and a triple jump competition on one runway in 2Â½ hours. So instead of doing what the other meets did – which was start several field events hours before the regular program to an empty stadium – we decided to put it on Friday night and that dovetailed nicely with Nike and the meet management wanting to showcase other events, mostly distance events.” The admission-free Friday night program has been a solid success. “We’ve had the Olympic Trials [in selected distance events] for Kenya in 2012. We had a 10,000 where Galen Rupp set the American record. We had a 30K world record way back in the day,” lists Jordan as he rattles off some of the past Friday night highlights. “So it’s really kind of taken on a life of its own.”
A tinge of melancholy impacts this year’s Classic: the final Pre to be held in the presently-configured Hayward Field. And the shroud of uncertainty surrounding the renovation plans for the nation’s most storied track & field venue makes forward planning difficult for Jordan and his staff. “I’m not on the inside as far as building schedules or anything like that,” Jordan qualifies. “My understanding is they plan to break ground in July and work straight through and have it finished by April of 2020. And we would look at going at the end of May. So I have my fingers crossed that that schedule will be adhered to,” he explains. “For next year we are looking at alternate sites. We have one that is identified and we actually have an agreement with them. I don’t want to go on the record right now.” Pre’s Meet Director sees no problem with seating capacity at either the alternate site or the renovated Hayward Field facility. “It is more of a percentage thing,” notes Jordan in debunking the notion of any DL-required seating capacity or attendance minimum. “I don’t anticipate any major issues with [the seating capacity of the alternate site]. The Diamond League wants to see filled stands – and so do Diamond League meet directors.”
Almost by necessity, the present uncertainty surrounding the Hayward makeover suggests future planning for possible changes and event staging for the Prefontaine Classic would be premature. “A lot will depend on what the new stadium lends itself to. It seems a little forward to start planning to do things in a facility we know nothing about,” notes Jordan citing the need to see what works in the renovated venue. “So I think what will probably happen is that in 2020 we’ll be looking at that gathering as a sort of a shakeout event, if you will.”
Relatively unfazed by unpredictable future events, the steady-handed Jordan was at the helm once again for this year’s Prefontaine Classic. And – no surprise – the Pre meet shined: 6 world-leading performances [Benjamin Kigen’s 8:09.07 in the steeple; fast-finishing Shelby Houlihan’s 3:59.06 in the 1500 (She now is the #5 all-time American woman); Omar McCleod’s 13.01 in the 110H; Genzebe Dibaba’s 14:26.89 in the 5000; Lyle Noah’s 19.69 in the 200; and Tim Cheruiiyot’s 3:49.87 in the mile] and an additional 5 American leaders [Evan Jager’s 8:11.71 in the steeple; Ryan Crouser (the Pre’s Most Outstanding Performer) with his 22.53m/73’11” in the shot; Devon Allen’s 13.13 in the 110H; Lauren Paquette’s 15:15.23 in the 5000; and Clayton Murphy’s 3:53.40 in the mile.] While Ronnie Baker [9.78] successfully defended his 100m title, a pesky wind kept him from lowering his current American leader and the Prefontaine meet record. Winner Jenn Suhr and runner-up Eliza McCartney raised the Prefontaine record to 4.85m/15’11” in the vault. And Caster Semenya’s 1:55.92 set a new U.S. soil record in the 800. In addition, a total of 23 athletes dipped under 4:00 in the two men’s mile races, with International Mile winner Luke Mathews [3:57.02] claiming the honor of authoring the 400th Prefontaine Classic sub-4:00 clocking [The 1st was by Steve Scott] and 6th place finisher in the same race Riley Masters [3:58.12] registering the 500th sub-4:00 finish in Hayward Field history [The 1st was by Dyrol Burleson in 1960].
Once the Bowerman Mile is completed and the curtain comes down on yet another successful Pre Classic, a certain emotional letdown is to be expected. But it doesn’t last for long as the Meet Director and his staff turn their collective attention to a variety of post-meet tasks and eventually to the planning for next year’s gala. “First we have to pay all the bills and withhold all the taxes for every foreign athlete – which is a significant undertaking,” explains Jordan in addressing just some of the post-meet work. “We’re cleaning up 2018 through the summer and we hope to have it all completed by November. And in January we start planning for the next year.” Jordan acknowledges that while work for the Prefontaine Classic takes place around the calendar, the staff size ebbs and flows depending on the time of year. The Meet Director is candid about the commitment his staff members make to this annual event. “Most of my staff have full time jobs doing something else,” notes Jordan. “So they take time off to work on Pre. Several of them lose money doing it.” It is this commitment and relentless attention to precise preparation that makes this meet the best. While these fussy details are an ever-present challenge for Jordan and his staff every year, others in the track & field community don’t worry about it. They already know that, like every year, Tom Jordan and his leadership team are on it.