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Portland Welcomes IAAF World Indoor Championships Return to the U.S.

USATF presents weekly features, contributed by Tom Surber, highlighting elite athletes, coaches, officials and events that have made an impact on the sport.This week Surber reflects back to the inaugural IAAF World Indoor Championships.

With the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships beginning Thursday in Portland, Oregon, it’s almost as if the event is being held in USA Track & Field’s own backyard. As impressive and as comforting as that may be for Team USA athletes competing there, USATF brought the event even closer to its front door in 1987 when the inaugural World Indoor Championships were staged in USATF’s very own house.

Many of the world’s finest athletes competed in downtown Indianapolis at the Hoosier Dome, where the national offices of The Athletics Congress (TAC) – now USATF -- were then located. The inaugural World Indoor Championships were a huge success and provided the impetus for the NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships to be held there from 1989-1999.

With 402 world-class athletes from 84 countries on hand for the event, the 1987 World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis proved to be a tremendous showcase not only for the brightest stars of track and field, but also for one infamous scoundrel whose incredible performance was rightfully disallowed as though it never happened.

Sadly, one of the performances most remembered from the spirited competition in the Hoosier Dome was provided by Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who blew away the field in the men’s 60 meters in the world record time of 6.41 seconds. Johnson’s performance was later negated when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

American Lee McRae, who legitimately set the 60m world record with his time of 6.50 seconds, was elevated to the gold medal, with his American teammate Mark Witherspoon (6.54) claiming the silver medal.

Other American men winning gold medals included Kirk Baptiste in the 200m (20.73), Antonio McKay in the 400m (45.98), Tonie Campbell in the 60m hurdles (7.51) and National Track and Field Hall of Famers Larry Myricks in the long jump (8.23m/27-0) and Mike Conley in the triple jump (17.54m/57-6.50).   

Scoring silver medals for Team USA were National Track & Field Hall of Famer Earl Bell in the men’s pole vault (5.80m/19-0.25) and Lillie Leatherwood in the women’s 400m (52.54).

Additional world records were set by Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria in the women’s high jump (2.05m/6-8.75), Mikhail Shchennikov of the Soviet Union in the men’s 5,000m race walk (18:27.79), Olga Krishtop, also of the Soviet Union, in the women’s 3,000m race walk and Heike Drechsler of East Germany, who won the women’s 200m in 22.27 seconds. Drechsler also won the women’s long jump with a leap of 7.10m/23-3.50.

Other notable winners at Indianapolis 1987 included 1988 Olympic Games gold medalist and numerous time world record holder Sergey Bubka of the Soviet Union in the men’s pole vault (5.85m/19-2.25), four-time Olympian Marcus O’Sullivan of Ireland, who won the men’s 1,500 meters in 3:39.04, and 1988 men’s shot put Olympic gold champion Ulf Timmerman of East Germany with his winning heave of 22.24m/72-11.75.

Additional athletes of note who competed in Indianapolis included Jamaican women’s sprinter and nine-time Olympic medalist Merlene Ottey, who finished second in the 200m in 22.66 seconds and fourth in the 60m in 7.13 seconds, and current USATF President Stephanie Hightower, who finished eighth in the 60m hurdles in 8.26 seconds.

Indianapolis played host to the inaugural World Indoor Championships as part of the city’s forward-thinking initiative to promote itself by becoming the self-proclaimed Amateur Sports Capital of the World.

“The 1980s were an amazing decade,” said Pete Cava, former longtime media information officer for TAC/USATF. “When The Athletics Congress began operations, we moved downtown in the late 1980s, and in those days downtown Indianapolis would close up when work ended around 5-6 o’clock. We began to see the RCA Dome go up and that was completed in ’84, but we saw all these other facilities grow up, too -- the track, the velodrome, the natatorium -- and you knew that Indianapolis was on the way, bigtime. In 1982, the track stadium was completed and that year we had the U.S. versus USSR dual meet, which was a big success. The National Sports Festival took place later that summer and that was bigtime, and now we’re looking towards big international events and the first one that we got was the World Indoor Championships.

“The idea of World Championships was something new. The first one was the 1983 World Outdoor Championships in Helsinki, so here we are four years later hosting the first World Indoor Championships, and all of a sudden the world was coming to Indy and everything was new, the track was new and this was the first indoor meet at the Dome. Here we are bringing in people from every continent to compete at the World Indoors, and it was pretty exciting.”

While the excitement and anticipation of hosting the World Indoor Championships was real, so were the challenges of making sure that every miniscule detail of hosting a major international sporting event was accounted for.

“Here we are for the first time hosting a bigtime international event and we’ve got to round up translators, and we’ve got to round up people who have an idea about the different cultures of the nations who are going to be coming in,” Cava said. “I remember there was one reporter who hadn’t filed for accreditation who showed up at the last minute, and the guy had been in the air for about 15 hours coming from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and he’s all upset like, ‘Why don’t I have a credential?’ ‘Well sir, because you haven’t filed for accreditation,’” Cava replied.  “So we get him a Coke and have him sit down, and by the time the guy left, I was his best friend.

“It was the typical stuff. The good news is we had been putting on the U.S. Indoor Championships in New York City at Madison Square Garden for years, so we were pretty used to putting on bigtime indoor track and field meets, but the difference here was this wasn’t just for athletes from the U.S. and maybe Canada, and a handful of other nations – this was the world.”

Unlike hosting the USATF Indoor Championships in New York, where TAC staffers were solely responsible for directing the event, putting on the World Indoor Championships meant those individuals had to work with and appease representatives of the IAAF, which presented an additional set of challenges.

“The IAAF had put on a world indoor meet in Paris a couple of years before, and that was kind of a test to see if the World Indoor Championships would work,” Cava said. “They awarded the meet here and one of the problems was they had their own sponsors and we had ours, and now suddenly we’ve gotta work with their sponsors. For example: We had Xerox as our copier sponsor and they had Mita, and the copying machines that we had for press work couldn’t really handle the load that we usually handled with one of the big Xerox machines, so that was a little bit of a hassle. I remember the people we had working on results and on heat sheets. They were working late into the night, so that was kind of a strain. I found out later we could’ve had our own Xerox machine that we just would’ve had to keep out of sight so nobody could see what we were doing. You know - silly things like that.”

Despite all the challenges and difficult situations that needed to be overcome to host the event, the countless individuals who worked hard and sacrificed time and energy to make the inaugural World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis a rousing success, carry with them a special feeling of gratification and accomplishment they’ll always cherish.

“Overall it was worth it, putting on the first big international meet here,” Cava said. “It’s an amazing feeling. Here you are in your hometown and you have the world’s best athletes competing at the World Indoor Championships. It was a feeling of pride – it really was.”

-- Contributed by Tom Surber 

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