Strong Irish contingent capable of stirring Letzigrund showing
Electric atmosphere plays part in ensuring 25 world records broken inside venue
Rob Heffernan: at age 36, and with 14 years of major championship experience latched on to his slender shoulders, Heffernan knows the exact meaning of the word “peak”. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Inpho
Some athletic arenas are instantly illuminated by their place in our sporting history, and the Letzigrund is not one of them.
As happy hunting grounds go, Zurich is no Helsinki, or Gothenburg, or indeed Budapest.
The relationship is often mere romance, although consider this: Eamonn Coghlan won his World Championship in Helsinki, in 1983, in the same stadium where Sonia O’Sullivan won her first European Championship, in 1994; O’Sullivan then won her World Championship in Gothenburg, in 1995, in the same stadium where Derval O’Rourke won her first European Championship silver, in 2006.
And when O’Sullivan won her European Championship double in Budapest in 1998 that came echoing back when Fionnuala Britton won her European Cross-Country double on the outskirts of the same city in 2012. And I could go on like this.
That’s not saying Zurich doesn’t hold its ground as a world famous athletics city.
Next week, the Letzigrund gets to stage its first major championship. But for almost 80 years it’s been staging the best one-day athletics meeting in the world – the suitably titled Weltklasse, German for “World Class”.
Built in 1924 by members of FC Zurich, who still play there, the Letzigrund avoided large-scale redevelopment when Switzerland hosted the 1954 World Cup, and instead has retained its neat, intimate, 25,000 capacity interior – the perfect nest for a 400m running track.
When packed for the Weltklasse (which it always is) the atmosphere is of loose electricity, wildly conducted by the crowd banging on the metal hoarding that surrounds the track.
No wonder 25 world records have been broken inside the Letzigrund, and not just those of the Mickey Mouse variety.
In 1960, Armin Hary from West Germany became the first man to run the 100m
in exactly 10.0 seconds. And in 2006 Asafa Powell from Jamaica also set a 100m world record at the Letzigrund, clocking 9.77. Seb Coe set two world records there – his 3:32.1 for 1,500m in 1979, and his 3:48.53 mile in 1981 – as did Haile Gebrselassie, both over 5,000m.
So this is the arena that 28 Irish athletes will get to savour next week, when the Letzigrund opens its door to Europe. Actually that’s not strictly true, as one of the athletes most capable of leaving a mark on these championships is Rob Heffernan, and he’ll be walking the streets of Zurich, not inside the Letzigrund.
For a man who delivered Ireland’s only global sporting title in 2013 there hasn’t been much hype about Heffernan’s quest for glory in Zurich, although that’s the way he likes it. Heffernan can count on one hand the number of times he’s competed this year, and he hasn’t actually raced over the 50km walk since winning his World Championship gold in Moscow last summer.