David Hunter wrote this piece on one of the true Cathedrals of Sport, the Zurich Letzigrund Stadium. It is a tremendous stadium from which to witness the best in our sport.
David has written for us for several years, and we thought this was a grand way to start off his writing in 2019, with a story about one of the finest stadiums in the world. We are also quite grateful to the always thoughtful Steve Cram, who expressed what many feel are the amazing qualities of the Stadion Letzigrund.
When you think about it, the venue in which a track and field gathering is held really should have virtually no impact on the performance of the athletes. One lap is always 400 meters. Barrier heights for the men’s 110 meter hurdles remain at 42 inches. And a 2 meter high jump consistently measures out at 6’6Â¾”. But we have come to learn that there are a few intangible variables (e.g. the passion of the crowd, the significance of the event, the heritage of the venue, etc.) that sometimes can inspire pinnacle performances in several revered and magical facilities.
One such location is Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium which over the years has been the site of an impressive number of truly outstanding track & field performances. Letzigrund, which can trace it origins back to 1925, has been the site of 25 world record acheivements over the years – including Armin Hary’s groundbreaking 100 meters in 1960 as he became the first man ever to run the event in 10.0 seconds; Sebastian Coe’s world record performances in the 1500 meters [3:32.1 in ’79] and the mile [3:48.53 in ’81]; and 8 WR achievements by American athletes [Willie Davenport’s 13.2 110H in ’69; Rod Milburn’s 13.1 110H in ’73; Renaldo Nehemiah’s 12.93 110H in ’81; Evelyn Ashford’s 10.76 100m in ’84; Mary Slaney’s 4:16.71 mile in ’85; Butch Reynold’s 43.29 400m in ’88; Roger Kingdom’s 12.92 110H in ’89; and the Team USA quartet of Mike Marsh, Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell, and Carl Lewis’ 37.87 in the men’s 4x100m relay in ’91].
While none of Letzigrund’s world records stand today, the question still remains: why has Zurich’s beloved stadium been so successful in its ability to harvest these never-before performances in such impressive numbers? While the complete answer can likely never be fully known, Steve Cram – one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time – doesn’t hesitate to offer his thoughts about Letzigrund’s successes.
“I think it is a bit like Bislett [the famed Oslo stadium],” offers Cram in identifying how a venue can positively impact an athlete’s mental state. “A stadium gets a little bit of a reputation for being somewhere where people can go and run fast. Then [top athletes] want to go there to race. And then it becomes the race – kind of like the Diamond League final.” Cram, the ’84 Olympic silver medalist at 1500 meters, can personally identify with the allure a stacked field on a fast track in a revered venue can have on an emerging young athlete. “I watched Seb Coe in 1979 [when he set the 1500 meter world record in Zurich] and I was 18 watching it on TV going ‘I want to go run in Zurich or I want to go run in Bislett’ because these were the places where people run fast. So it is kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
But Cram, the ’83 world championship gold medalist in the metric mile, notes a powerful mental impact all of this can have on an athlete. “And once you want to go there, psychologically you think you’re going to run well because you’re going to a staging that has the history of being quick. You tell a lad that they’re going to a fast track and mentally they will perform better.”
But Cram also notes some very real benefits provided by the protected, intimate nature of Zurich’s stadium itself. “I think there is also the physicality of the stadium. Here you get a smaller stadium that is always full. And Letzigrund is slightly sunken. So even if you are here on warmer summer evenings, you are sheltered from the wind most of the time. You have this kind of cauldron effect. It’s not a 60,000 seat stadium [where the crowd can seem unimpressive] even when there are lots of people there. It is compact. People can be standing, crushed in there. The atmosphere is incredible. That also added to your expectations, but it also has a physical effect on your ability to run fast.”
Although he has captured “two or three” Weltklasse victories at 1500 meters, Cram cites a Zurich 800 meter victory – in a PR 1:42.88 – as his best performance on the Letzigrund track. With his experience over varied distances, Cram knows how the new surface of the Letzigrund track can be yet another factor to elevate performance. “The surface here now is much harder than it used to be in our day. It suits sprinters more. In our day, it was about middle and long distance fast times. While I did see Butch Reynolds break the world record for 400 meters here, it was quite rare to run fast sprint times here because the track was much softer then. Whereas now the track is harder, much harder, really hard.”
According to the multiple-time European and Commonwealth champion even the proximity of everything an athlete needs in a cozy, residential neighborhood plays a role in raising performances. “It is very similar to Bislett,” notes Cram of the Letzigrund neighborhood. “All of the athletes stay at the Crown Plaza Hotel, formerly the Intercontinental back in those days. And that added to it as well. You never had to go anywhere. The vast majority of athletes that came to run in Zurich never ever saw anything except the airport, that hotel, and the 100 meter walk to the stadium. They never saw the neighborhood.” And with a laugh, he adds, “It was about 4 years before I ever went downtown and saw what a beautiful city Zurich is.”
Cram, who cites 3 world record achievements – Butch Reynolds’ 43.29 400m, Haile Gebreselassie’s 12:41.86 5000m, and Yelena Ishinbayeva’s 5.00m PV – as the greatest performances he has witnessed in Letzigrund, can remember how even the hotel played a role during his competitive days. “The 1500 was always on at the end of the evening. And I remember when I would pull open the window early in the evening – around 7:00 o’clock – and I would hear the noise and the cheers from the stadium and it would help build you up. It was an unusual meet in that the hotel was very tuned in to this event. In your room, the TV would have a channel broadcasting last year’s meet. You couldn’t help but get caught up with ‘I’m in Zurich’ and the fact it is all inter-connected: the hotel and the stadium.”
Cram, himself a former world record holder at 1500m, 2000m, and the mile, doesn’t forget what he acknowledges maybe the most beneficial X Factor: the fans. “The fans here know their athletics; they know everybody; even to this day.”
Before departing to complete his broadcast preparation for the Weltklasse later in the evening, Steve Cram offers a persuasive closing summary on how all of these ethereal intangibles can lift the performance of great athletes. “Somebody once said to me if you are actor and you know the lines to Hamlet, you can go out and do that anywhere. But when you get put into the great old places – New York, London, wherever – you get inspired to take the performance to a higher level because of the venue. Suddenly you’re at a venue where there is a passionate crowd, the atmosphere has history, and this is your chance. And you operate at a different level. Athletes are the same.” / Dave Hunter /