In the beloved sport of track and field, the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field is a hallowed ground. Dating back more than 100 years, the stadium in Eugene has been a perennial host of NCAA championships, world professional championships, and U.S. Olympic track team trials, including those ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Two dozen of the university’s track and field athletes have gone on to win Olympic medals.
So when the university set out to redesign the stadium, it aimed to build a world-class home for the sport. After more than three years of construction and $200 million spent, the new stadium opened earlier this year as one of the most advanced venues in the world dedicated specifically to track and field.
The renovation was fully funded by donors, including billionaire Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. Knight, once a University of Oregon track athlete, teamed up with his former coach, Bill Bowerman, in 1964 to cofound Blue Ribbon Sports (later rebranded as Nike). Portland-based SRG Partnership, the architecture firm behind the design, was tasked with delivering a stadium that pushed the concept of what a track and field venue could be.
“The client said if the charge here is to build the world’s finest track and field facility, where you start is to go visit the world’s finest track and field facilities,” says Jeff Yrazabal, principal at SRG Partnership. Almost all of these are located in Europe. So on a whirlwind six-day trip, the architects visited 12 stadiums in nine countries, testing out seats and views, walking tracks, and learning from track-meet directors about how event days unfold.
On top of this research trip, the designers received input from the university, Nike, and a whole raft of athletes, coaches, nutritionists, sports physiologists, and broadcasters back in Oregon.
One of the biggest lessons they learned was to prioritize proximity for spectators. Seats at the new Hayward Field are placed as close to the action as possible. Front-row seats are at the same level as the track, and within about a yard of the outside running lane. Marquesa Figueroa, one of the architects who worked on the project, attended a track event shortly after the stadium opened and says the experience was palpable. “It was amazing to be that close to the athletes. Hearing them breathe, like that first breath as they’re getting out of the starting blocks, that was special,” she says. “We wanted the spectators to have that intimacy.”
The new stadium’s unique layout features its 12,600 seats wrapping around the track asymmetrically, concentrating most of them at the finish line. “There’s a functional reason to build energy and have more of the crowd at the finish line, but it also gives you that sense of movement and speed circling the track,” Yrazabal says.
Realizing, however, that track and field events also include relays, long-distance races, and a variety of jumping and throwing competitions, the designers ensured that spectators at every event would have access to prime views. “Track and field has the biggest competition surface of any sport,” says Aaron Pleskac, principal at SRG Partnership. “Would you rather watch the athlete throw [a javelin or discus], or where it lands? Pole vault happens in the middle. Some races start at the three-quarter mark instead of just running one lap. The stadium is a theater.”
The stadium also functions outside of competitions, with labs designated for the university’s sports physiology researchers to monitor athletes, as well as spaces inside and out that can be used for team training and exercise. The practice level of the building interior has a 140-meter sprint track, and the primary corridor wrapping the stadium is lined and measured for use as an extra jogging track. “Every inch of it can be used as a training facility, so no more having to schedule time or share facilities with other sports,” says SRG architect Whitney Ranson. “Anything that can be used as a training tool is used as a training tool.”
For all its behind-the-scenes features and training-specific elements, the stadium is mostly intended to be a high-profile home for the sport. The designers hope the architecture helps, but they also know that in this historic site with such deep roots in track and field, it’s the spectators who will play the biggest role in making the new Hayward Field a success.
“The fan base in this part of the country knows track and field at a deeper level than anywhere else in the world,” Yrazabal says. “They know the pace of a race, they know what a world-record throw looks like. So that creates a lot of energy in the space above any architectural move.”