‘Instant medals’ at worlds 

Wilbert Greaves gives Australia’s Eleanor Patterson her gold medal in the women’s high jump on Tuesday.

EUGENE, Oregon—It takes speed to win some of these medals at world championships.

Speed to hand all of them out, too. A little bit of jumping ability doesn’t hurt, either.

In a new twist at track and field’s biggest event this side of the Olympics, athletes no longer have to wait to receive their prizes. The medals are waiting trackside and, once gold, silver and bronze are decided, presenters position themselves to hang them around their rightful winners’ necks, sometimes while they’re still on the run.

One caveat: They need them back.

These “instant medals” are purely placeholders for athletes to enjoy on their celebration lap. The take-home ones, engraved with their names, get presented in a ceremony later on.

“To have that medal so fast, it’s so nice,” said British runner Laura Muir, who earned a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters. “It’s surreal because one minute you’re not even across the line and the next minute you have the medal around your neck.”

All part of the plan from Niels de Vos, the executive director of Oregon22. He remembered watching an athlete win at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and receive his medal the next day in a nearly empty stadium.

“From an athlete’s perspective, it’s like, ‘But my friends and family are here today. They haven’t got a ticket tomorrow. I don’t want to come back tomorrow for my medal and not have my family,’” de Vos explained. “Everybody likes this.”

The process involves plenty of advanced scout work. That’s why de Vos, the longtime chief executive of UK Athletics and CEO of the 2017 world championships in London, brought over a knowledgeable track team from Britain. Just to help with the task of tracking down euphoric athletes. It’s not as easy as it might seem. Through prep work, they know approximately where someone will end up once a race or field event concludes.

Then, they spring into action.

Like when 6-foot-3 sprinter Fred Kerley won the 100 meters last weekend and took off down the curve of the track. There, waiting for him, was a much shorter presenter, Cherry Alexander. She reached high into the air to get the medal on Kerley.

The moment turned into a meme on social media.

Sometimes, the suddenness of receiving a medal takes an athlete by surprise. It did with high jump champion Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar.

“I was thinking, ‘What are they doing?’” Barshim said. “I was like, ‘I thought we did a ceremony? No, I want a ceremony!’”

No worries, there’s a ceremony, too. This medal is just a bonus play. Barshim actually took his medal into the stands and placed it around his young son.

“It’s great. My family wanted to come and see it and hold it,” Barshim said.

Then, he handed it back. His permanent one wasn’t far behind.

In less time than it takes an 800-meter runner to finish, a medal can be engraved.

The precise time: 68 seconds.

There’s a 3D printing machine—four are used on heavy medal days—located in a room underneath the seats at Hayward Field. There will be around 252 medals engraved and presented to athletes at the podium ceremony.

The medals features a nifty design, with one side a cross-section of a tree and seven rings to represent the seven regions of Oregon. The other side, one of seven different landscape pictures (an athlete can win multiple medals and not have the same landscape). There’s room, of course, for the printer to etch their name.

Really, though, once that instant medal goes around an athlete’s neck, the moment becomes real.

At least, it did for American heptathlete Anna Hall, who knew she had earned bronze but it didn’t fully sink in—as exhausted as she was—until that medal’s arrival.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I really did it,’” Hall exclaimed.

US hurdler Trey Cunningham enjoyed everything about celebrating with his silver medal on his victory lap. But this takes some getting used to: “The medal kept slapping me in the chest,” Cunningham said, laughing.

De Vos has thoughts on how to expand on the drama. Like if Venezuelan triple jumper champion Yulimar Rojas has a big opening leap to lead the competition, Rojas grabs the medal off the nearby stand.

“And then she says, ‘It’s mine!’” de Vos cracked. “Almost like they do in boxing with the (championship) belt. You could have all sorts of fun things.”

The only wrinkle to the instant medals: Athletes are sometimes reluctant to give up their placeholder award. Muir told organizers she wanted that exact medal engraved—since it went with her on the journey around the track.

“I was feeling quite attached to it already,” Muir said.

Image credits: AP



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