“I Love Pre, But This Meet Was Better”: A First-Timer’s Thoughts on Weltklasse Zurich

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By Jonathan Gault
August 30, 2017

Last week, my bosses Robert and Weldon Johnson sent me to cover the Weltklasse Zurich meet in Switzerland and on our weekly conference call on Monday, they were eager to know what their investment had bought them. Before this summer, I had never covered a meet in Europe. How did Zurich stack up against other meets I’d covered during my career?

Comparing Zurich to Worlds or the Olympics is unfair. They’re different kinds of meets, with different stakes. So instead, I thought back to the best non-championship meet I had covered.

“I love Pre, but this meet was better than the Pre Classic,” I told them.

***

The venue for Wednesday's women's pole vault

Zurich Hauptbahnhof — the venue for Wednesday’s women’s pole vault

Weltklasse Zurich (weltklasse is German for “world class”) began on Wednesday with the women’s pole vault held at Zurich Hauptbahnhof, the main train station in the heart of Zurich. It’s a beautiful old building (the main facade dates to 1871), the kind of place you can tell is important just by looking at it from the outside. Inside, they had constructed a pole vault runway with temporary bleachers to the right. Those bleachers were packed from the moment I walked in, about 15 minutes before the competition began, until the moment I left. And they weren’t just filled with fans — world champ Sam Kendricks and world record holder Renaud Lavillenie, who were competing the following evening, were there to cheer on their female counterparts, as was world indoor high jump champ Gianmarco Tamberi (he of the famous half beard).

The athletes were into it as well. Once the competition was down to Katerina Stefanidi and Sandi Morris — because it’s apparently a rule that all great PV competitions these days must come down to Stefanidi vs. Morris — Kendricks went down to runway level to offer encouragement to Morris between attempts. It was great to see the camaraderie between America’s two best pole vaulters.

The atmosphere was terrific, and despite the massive stage, the area was still fairly easy to navigate. Commuters could stop by to watch a couple of jumps if they pleased, though most of the people in the best standing spots stayed throughout the entire competition. Each vaulter had her own personalized song for her attempts, which was a nice touch, and the entire crowd got into it by clapping for every try. The Swiss women’s attempts were particularly fun, with the air filling with waving Swiss flags every time Nicole Büchler or Angelica Moser stepped up.

It would have been a great night even if the competition itself wasn’t incredible — though it was. Both Stefanidi and Morris cleared 4.87 meters (the two highest indoor jumps in the world this year, and an overall season’s best for Morris), with the fans going nuts for each clearance. The only drawback: as more vaulters were eliminated, the time between attempts gradually grew larger, and while that ramped up the anticipation, it also sapped some of the crowd’s energy.

The PV also featured perhaps the most athletic mascot in the world of sports: Cooly the Cow, who I’m pretty sure set some sort of mascot world record by vaulting something in the mid-three-meter range:

***

Post-meet fireworks

Post-meet fireworks

The main program took place on Thursday night at Letzigrund, which has hosted the meet since its first edition in 1928. The stadium, situated in the northwest part of Zurich, had a number of unique features. The roof is wooden, and on top of the roof sit 31 floodlights, each of which looks like a massive toothbrush sticking out into the night sky. Letzigrund is also one of those stadiums where the track is actually below ground level, which always makes for a neat experience after walking in from the street (also, fewer stairs). Finally, you can place bets on the races inside the stadium on the main concourse level. Try doing that in the United States.

While there were several terrific races on Thursday — including Mo Farah‘s epic victory in the 5,000 and Ruth Jebet‘s incredible 8:55 steeple — that’s not what made the meet special. The two hours of competition were actually quite similar to other Diamond League meets I’ve attended in the past (granted, I spent a good chunk of the meet in the mixed zone talking to athletes). It was the pre- and post-meet festivities that set Zurich apart. Before the meet began, a dozen of the biggest stars were driven around the track in luxury vehicles, allowing the fans to get a look at them, similar to how the horses at the Kentucky Derby trot out to the starting gate one by one. After the meet, all of the Diamond League winners were awarded their trophies in a ceremony before the cars took them around the track once more for a victory lap.

The best was yet to come, however. Just as I thought the meet was over, the main lights went out. A few seconds later, however, three spotlights shone down on the infield as hundreds of small, blue lights lit up the stands and a rock band launched into a 10-minute set. The night concluded with an epic fireworks display on the infield. I’d never seen anything like that at a track meet. It was awesome.

***

One other thing that is becoming an increasingly uncommon sight at track meets around the world: the stands were full. And Letzigrund, at 30,000 seats, is not a small stadium. In recent years, New York has lost its Diamond League meet, Paris has had to downsize to a smaller stadium and others have struggled to fill seats.

Flag for Weltklasse Zurich in Old Town Zurich

Flag for Weltklasse Zurich on display in Old Town Zurich

Why is Zurich different? Well, it helps to have deep pockets. The meet has a budget of $8.5 million (a total that includes associated youth activities such as the UBS Kids Cup), and it is well-advertised. Strolling around Zurich two days before the meet, I saw several ads across the city as well as a Weltklasse Zurich flag flying alongside the flag of Zurich and the flag of Switzerland along the Limmat river in Old Town Zurich, a picturesque area popular with tourists. Obviously a big budget helps get the word out, but you don’t remain popular without putting on a great meet, and Zurich does that year after year.

That has allowed the meet to protect and gradually grow its fanbase. Some new track meets will play up the spectacle aspect, branding themselves as events rather than athletics competitions. With its post-meet concert and fireworks display, Weltklasse Zurich has plenty of razzle-dazzle — indeed, that’s a big part of what makes it great — but it’s marketed first and foremost as a track meet.

“We really focus on the athletics family,” said Christoph Joho, who serves as co-meet director alongside Andreas Hediger. “When we start with ticket sales, we start with all the licensed athletes and coaches in Switzerland to invite them. This is the core. And then around them, we have the so-called ‘Weltklasse Zurich friends.’ They choose to receive our newsletter, or are people who have been in the stadium who want tickets, so they know the product. And just with those two groups, we already sell probably 60-70% of our tickets. We do not rely on ‘event hoppers,’ I call them. Because they think, Oh it’s nice weather, Mo Farah is here and 17 world champions, probably we should go. Or Usain Bolt is here, of course we go. But next year, if Usain is not around anymore, [they think] it’s not worth [it] to go.”

Weltklasse Zurich also invests in the sport.

“We are a non-profit-organization and we invest all profit in the athletics movement in Switzerland,” said Weltklasse Zurich spokesman Roland Hirsbrunner. “So we support the best Swiss athletes and the local club behind Weltklasse Zurich (LC Zurich), we organize the UBS Kids Cup or we support the very successful relay projects from Swiss Athletics.”

That’s a great model, and Zurich appears to be having success with it. And we already know that the model works in the United States. The Pre Classic annually fills most of Hayward Field — granted, Hayward is a third of the size of Letzigrund — operating under the same formula: a big budget (or in the case of Pre, Nike contracts that compel athletes to compete) to attract stars and marketing to a base of track fans. But Weltklasse Zurich and the Pre Classic also have several advantages built in: cool, historic venues; a tradition of excellence; and those big budgets.

Credit to Weltklasse Zurich, though. The meet uses those advantages to the fullest and puts on a great show for spectators and athletes alike. I can’t wait to go back.

What’s your favorite meet? Join the discussion: Jon on Zurich: “I Love Pre, But [Weltklasse] Was Better”- What’s Your Favorite Track Meet?

*Full 2017 Zurich coverage here

LRC Zurich Photo Gallery: We have a few images below, but click here for a full 2017 Zurich Weltklasse photo gallery.

What a finish in 5000

What a finish in 5000

Diamond League Winners

Diamond League Winners

Farah_MoBot1-Zurich17

One final Mo bot

Makwala_IsaacR1-Zurich17

Makwala

LRC Zurich Full Photo Gallery

What’s your favorite meet? Join the discussion: Jon on Zurich: “I Love Pre, But [Weltklasse] Was Better”- What’s Your Favorite Track Meet?


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