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75 years of world class athletics

Switzerland's André Bucher (right) running in last year's 800 metres Keystone

Zurich's prestigious Weltklasse athletics meeting celebrates its 75th anniversary on Friday.

And in keeping with the occasion, a star-studded line-up has been drawn to this year’s event.

Twelve world champions, including Switzerland’s own André Bucher, are set to do battle at the Letzigrund stadium, along with three world record holders and 16 holders of year’s best times.

Interest in the Zurich meeting also seems to have been boosted by its proximity to the athletics world championships in Paris which start just eight days later.

Despite initial fears that top stars might stay away from Zurich in order to concentrate on Paris, most of the sport’s big names seem keen to stop off in Switzerland for a final test before the world championships.

“High respect”

“We are certainly lucky that our meeting is held in such high respect by the athletes,” Weltklasse director Hansjörg Wirz told swissinfo.

“But before the season started, we asked many of the coaches about the timing and most of them told us that the Weltklasse would fit in well with their planning. There are a few athletes who had different ideas, but that is always the case.”

One of those notable exceptions is American sprint star Maurice Greene, who decided to instead use last Sunday’s Golden League meeting in Berlin as his final run-out before Paris.

Also missing, though for a different reason, will be Greene’s biggest rival Tim Montgomery who has struggled to find his form since taking time off to be with his wife and new son.

Since his wife is none other than women’s 100 metres star Marion Jones, the Weltklasse will have to do without three big names in the sprinting events.

Familiar faces

Elsewhere though the fans will have plenty of familiar faces to cheer, with the likes of Hicham El Guerrouj, Felix Sanchez, Wilson Kipketer, Maria Mutola and Gail Devers all set to compete.

And it’s not only the current stars who will be in attendance. The Weltklasse organisers have invited a host of former top athletes to take part in the 75th anniversary celebrations, including Sergey Bubka, Michael Johnson and Linford Christie.

As a former Swiss hurdling champion himself, Wirz reckons the atmosphere at the Letzigrund stadium plays a large part in attracting the stars, past and present. Unusually for a major athletics arena, the Letzigrund still contains standing areas which tend to generate more noise than all-seater sections.

“Today’s athletes confirm what I felt when I was competing – that there really is an outstanding atmosphere here,” says Wirz. “It certainly helps the athletes who enjoy running with so much support from the spectators.”

Having last year celebrated an incredible tenth successive victory at the Weltklasse, Mutola should be a particular favourite with the Zurich crowd.

The veteran 800 metres runner from Mozambique is also the only athlete still able to win the million dollar jackpot, awarded to anyone who wins at all six of this season’s Golden League meetings.

Backing Bucher

The biggest noise though is likely to be reserved for Bucher in the men’s 800 metres as he looks to win for the third time in Zurich.

This year’s race should certainly test Bucher’s credentials ahead of his attempted world title defence in Paris. No less than ten of the world’s top 12 runners over 800 metres are due to compete in Zurich.

The race will pit Bucher against Kipketer, the Danish world record holder, for the first time this season, giving each man a chance to gain a psychological edge before they meet up again in the French capital.

Of course organisers and fans alike will be hoping to see a new world record to complete the night’s festivities. Last year Morocco’s Brahim Boulami set a world’s best time in the 3,000 metre steeplechase, only to then test positive in a doping control.

While Boulami’s case is still pending at the International Court of Sports, the Weltklasse meeting can look back on a total of 23 confirmed world records in its 75-year history.

Magic track

With its so-called “magic track”, the Zurich event seems particularly conducive to records in the running events. And even if some of this year’s athletes have their thoughts focused on Paris, the Weltklasse organisers are still expecting to see some strong performances.

“The atmosphere here always encourages the athletes to give their best,” Wirz points out, “and even if you are preparing for a major competition, you don’t limit yourself to a lower level of performance. The athletes will be looking to boost their confidence levels so I’m sure they’ll be giving all they can.”

Of course the high temperatures currently gripping Europe could sap some energy, although slightly cooler conditions are forecast for Friday evening.

Whatever the weather has in store, though, the Weltklasse’s 75th birthday looks set to be a sizzler.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Although the Weltklasse is 75 years old, this year’s edition is only the 53rd. Regular annual meetings didn’t begin until 1973.
More than a dozen former Weltklasse champions are due to take part in the anniversary celebrations.
A book commemorating the event’s history will be published later this year.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR