Twenty years later, still a rich legacy from the World Championships in Athletics

Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton played host to the World Championships in Athletics.

If Edmonton ever plays host to the World Athletics indoor championships — and there are community leaders interested in at least talking about the viability of such a bid — it would close a loop that opened 20 years ago.

From Aug. 3-12, 2001, Commonwealth Stadium was the scene of the first World Championships in Athletics to be held in North America. Athletes from about 200 nations came to Edmonton to vie for medals in 46 events; 24 for men, 22 for women. Organizers say they sold 400,000 tickets for 10 days of track and field action, corporate sponsors and government kicked in serious money, and the event claimed a profit of $9 million. Two decades later, the Athletics Legacy Foundation created to safeguard the championships legacy boasts a bank balance of $11.5 million, after having distributed $6.6 million to support athletics in Edmonton and northern Alberta.

So the legacy of the 2001 championships is alive and well.

“This event is still recognized as one of the finest world championships and one of the most successful ever held,” said Jack Agrios, the Edmonton lawyer who was co-chair of the successful bid committee.

In 1998, the International Association of Athletics Federations, now known as World Athletics, assembled in Monte Carlo and chose Edmonton over bids from Paris and Stanford/San Francisco.

“We were fortunate to be ahead of our time,” said Agrios. “Subsequently Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing have all hosted. So there is no question we were ahead of our time.”

Agrios said it is time for another generation of community leaders to take the baton from the 2001 organizers and run with a bid for the indoor worlds.

“I really sincerely hope that with us having the wonderful Rogers facility in the downtown centre of our city that some day we will in fact be able to host a world indoor championships.

“Now is time for us to seek another major event and the world indoor championships would be, in my judgment, a wonderful target for us to endeavour to obtain. I hope there are some young people around who care for their city, who will step up. People like me are available on an advisory capacity, but it has to be the young people, the young leaders of Edmonton today who have to step forward to do this.

He credited former Edmonton mayor Bill Smith, then federal Minister of Justice Anne McLellan and the late Ralph Klein, then premier of Alberta, for shepherding the bid through three levels of government, and helping persuade a majority of IAAF members to vote for the Edmonton bid.

“We were very fortunate that on all levels, civic, provincial and federal, we had amazing political support. There has to be the political will to achieve this.”

It’s likely ALF directors would support a world indoor bid financially. But for now, there are other more immediate projects on the table, including the Talent Optimization Program. Established five years ago by the Edmonton Track and Field Council, Athletics Alberta and the University of Alberta, and funded by ALF, the program supports athletes and coaches along the path to national teams and major championships. Marco Arop, the Edmonton runner who advanced to the semifinals of the 800-metres at the Tokyo Olympics, has been a beneficiary of TOP funding for about four years.

TOP director Robyn Webster said ALF directors just recently agreed to fund the program for another five years, at about $300,000 per year. The program currently supports about 45 athletes aged 14 and up who have to reapply each year and are eligible for a maximum of $6,000 in the coming season, based on a set of standards.

Webster administers the program, which includes talent identification. She’s a former pole vaulter who was in the program for a couple of years, and said the financial support is crucial.

“I can tell you honestly, without being too exaggerated, it did change my life. I was a post-collegiate athlete working for a non-profit on a very low salary and the funding from the TOP really allowed me, and so many others, to access those national and international competitions that you might have a hard time finding funds for otherwise.”

Foundation funds are also supporting the Expo Centre pilot project, which involves training space and equipment for athletics, basketball and volleyball. Athletics Alberta’s executive director James Rosnau said the project has great potential, as the goal is to establish a permanent 200-metre banked track and spectator seating in one of the Expo Centre halls. Such a facility would be capable of hosting major events like the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championship originally scheduled for Edmonton this year, now set for spring 2023 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ll do the World Masters, but first and foremost we’ve got to get the business case, which is coming together and quite compelling, approved, and that’s step one,” said Rosnau. “Step two would be to deliver the World Masters Championship in 2023 and then we look at what we could do beyond that.”

The foundation originally focused its financial support on the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre at Foote Field. However, after consulting with stakeholders in the Edmonton athletics community in 2015, the focus shifted to driving growth, development and success at all levels of the sport.

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