In a track and field season almost entirely wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, athletes and organizers are setting new marks in creativity. On Thursday, the storied Weltklasse meet will broadcast near-live from Zurich in an ambitious mix of social distancing and technological innovation.
Only a few of the 30 athletes that will share the $200,000 prize fund on an eight-event program will actually be in the city's Letzigrund Stadium. Others will start and compete simultaneously, three athletes or teams per event, in one of six empty stadiums scattered across Europe and the United States. Olympic sprint champion Allyson Felix will race in California, while world 200-meter champion Noah Lyles and Olympic triple jump gold medalist Christian Taylor will be in Florida.
The highest pressure race at the "Inspiration Games" is perhaps for the staff at Switzerland's public broadcaster and timing officials. Technicians in Zurich will receive images transmitted on a slight delay from the US, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden that must be synchronized within two minutes for broadcast during the 90-minute show.
"This is something that has never been done before," Swiss Timing executive Alain Zobrist said. Zobrist's team will monitor false starts from pressure curves on the starting blocks relayed to Zurich and photo finishes.
"I was totally on board with the concept," said Felix, who will line up in the 150 meters against Olympic 400-meter champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo in Florida and Mujinga Kambundji in Zurich. "Thought it was super creative just adapting to what's going on in the world right now."
Taylor was equally enthusiastic during a news conference held online from the athletes' homes and training bases. "If this is what the new normal is for this period then let's attack it full on," the reigning Olympic and world champion said.
Simply running on an actual track surface Felix in California, Taylor in Florida will be different with training facilities closed during the pandemic. "In California, pretty much everything is locked down," Felix said.
"You can't get on a track without jumping a fence."
Olympic pole vault champion Kat Stefanidi is now back in the United States after an unscheduled long stay in her native Greece. She had returned for an Olympic torch event in March.
"After six canceled flights, six failed attempts, we were able to get back to the US," Stefanidi said, describing eight weeks of uncertainty as "super stressed." Stefanidi, like Felix, will compete in California against Sandi Morris in Florida and Angelica Bengtsson in Sweden.
The men's sprinters will mostly congregate in Florida, with Lyles lining up there in the 200 against Christophe Lemaitre in Zurich and Churandy Martina in the Netherlands. Bradenton also hosts the only event with all three athletes at the same site: a 100-yard dash that includes 2019 world championship medalist Andre De Grasse.
The winner of each event gets $10,000, second place is worth $6,000, and third gets $4,000. Four months in the planning, the most complete track meet of the outdoor season is not expected to be a template for the near future.
"I don't think the model or the format we are executing now … will be a serious format," Weltklasse director Andreas Hediger said, adding it is the "only possibility we have now to bring the best athletes together."