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Zurich's golden appeal

European champion Wilson Kipketer will face Switzerland’s André Bucher in the 800-metre race

(Keystone)

Zurich is once again the centre of the universe for the world's best athletes as they vie for glory and prize money at the Letzigrund track.

But despite its appeal, the Weltklasse meeting is facing more and more competition from other events.

With just over a week to go until the start of the world athletics championships in Paris, Friday night at Zurich's Letzigrund stadium is set to see the world's top sportsmen and women putting their muscles through one final test.

Fourteen reigning world champions are making their way to Switzerland to take part in the Weltklasse, and many of the events will bring together the top ten competitors in the world.

As in past years, the best athletes from America, Europe and Africa will face off to decide who is the fastest or the strongest. So what brings them to Zurich?

"I think that it's the atmosphere of a small stadium full of people," says Heinz Schild, the race announcer.

"There is also a very good organisation working behind the scenes, and of course the very high level of the athletes competing here."

Much of Zurich's success is owed to its former director, Res Brügger, according to the organisers.

"Brügger changed Zurich from an amateur-level event into a world-class, professionally-run competition," said Weltklasse spokesman Nick Russi. "He also spent time talking with athletes to convince them to come here."

Better than the Olympics

The level of competition draws many athletes to Zurich - so many that the meeting has to turn some of them away, according to Schild.

"The fact is that some of our races have more talent than an Olympic final," he told swissinfo. "We are not limited to three competitors from each country like at the Games."

Spectators appreciate the competition and the atmosphere at the Letzigrund. "You are right up close with the athletes," said Fabio Colombo, an Italian fan.

Colombo, who has been a regular visitor at the Zurich meeting, told swissinfo that the size of stadium also meant that spectators could get a feel of an event as it panned out.

Athletes also consider a victory in Zurich an important calling card, and not just because it makes them famous.

"My wins at the Letzigrund were valuable when I went to talk with sponsors or to negotiate appearances abroad," said Werner Günthör, a former world shot-put champion and a six-time winner at the Letzigrund.

Golden bonus

World-class athletics has a lot more to do with money nowadays.

Zurich is part of the Golden League, a series of six European meetings, where competitors who achieve a win at each of the events can take home a share of 50 kilogrammes of gold.

Breaking a record at one of the Golden League events is also lucrative. The International Association of Athletics Federations guarantees a €50,000 (SFr73,200) bonus.

In Zurich, the organisers have gone one better, adding a kilogramme of gold to the bonus if a world record is broken.

Prize money isn't the only incentive for athletes to turn up in Zurich. "Many of them also get a fee for starting," Russi told swissinfo, refusing to say exactly how much is spent on these fees.

The budget for this year's Letzigrund meet is SFr5.8 million, of which SFr3.5 million go to the athletes themselves. Revenue is generated by broadcasting fees, ticket sales and sponsoring.

Zurich needs to spend big to defend its status. With the creation of the Golden League, it is slowly beginning to become just one of six major meetings.

Rival meets

Brussels is cited by experts and fans alike as the biggest rival to Zurich. "Brussels was ranked as the top event last year," admitted Russi, "but they were offering concerts for the spectators."

A bigger number of lucrative athletic meetings also gives competitors more options. "It tends to spread out the athletes' appearances, and the Weltklasse has more trouble standing out," Günthör told swissinfo

Some rivals are even beginning to say that Zurich is entering a phase of decline.

"It's hard to stay at the top," said Jacky Delapierre, organiser of Lausanne's Athletissima, Switzerland's second-biggest meeting.

"Zurich may have waited too long before changing its directorship. Res Brügger only retired three years ago at the age of 72, and they had trouble finding someone to replace him."

Hans-Jörg Wirz, head of the European Athletics Association took over from Brügger.

No one is prepared to write off the Letzigrund event yet. "Zurich can be expected to set the pace for the years to come," said Christian Fuchs, editor of the German online athletics magazine, leichtathletik.de.

The fans back up this judgement. "I won't travel to Brussels," said Colombo. "I'm looking for quality, and not a world record every time I go to a meet."

swissinfo

Key facts

Budget: SFr5.8 million.
14 world champions.
23 world records set at the Letzigrund since 1959.
World record worth €50,000, plus one kilogramme gold.
Started in 1928.
Stadium capacity: 19,400.

end of infobox

In brief

The Zurich Weltklasse athletics meet is celebrating its 75th birthday on Friday. Fourteen current world champions will be chasing a win at what many experts consider the best event of its kind in the world. But Zurich's supremacy is under threat from lucrative events throughout Europe.

end of infobox

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