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European Championships Zurich 2014 heralds new era in Swiss athletics

Zurich2014

The Swiss women's 4x100 metres squad are Zurich 2014's poster girls

(Keystone)

Switzerland is hosting its biggest sporting event since Euro 2008 in August. Putting on the European Athletics Championships for the first time in 60 years will put the city of Zurich through its paces.

In 1954, in Bern, organisers were taken by surprise when 24,000 people turned up to watch the athletics championships. They had only expected up to 15,000.

Extra tribunes had to be hastily assembled so spectators could cheer on such legends as Czech long-distance runner and triple Olympic gold medallist Emil Zatopek and Roger Bannister, famous for running the first sub four-minute mile.

This year the organisers are expecting 25,000 spectators a day at the Zurich Letzigrund stadium at the six-day eventexternal link, which starts on August 12. Around 1,400 athletes from 50 countries will be taking part.

The differences between the two meets are clearly outlined in Zurich 2014’s gushing trailer, which shows a relay baton being handed over from 1954 to 2014.

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Switzerland is of course no stranger to big athletics events – it hosts the Weltklasseexternal link Diamond League Athletics Meet in Zurich, as well as the Lausanne Athletissimaexternal link each year, which attract big names like Usain Bolt. So why the 60-year break with the European Championships?

Big event

“It's a very big event, it’s not that easy to organise. You need a good stadium to do it,” Patrick Magyar, CEO of Zurich 2014, told swissinfo.ch. “We have only had the Letzigrund stadiumexternal link with its 25,000 seats for a few years. We actually started with the European Championships candidature while the stadium was still under construction, so it took eight years to get it here.”

“It's a very popular event, a lot of cities, a lot of countries want to organise it because it has a very good ratio between how much you need to invest as a city and how much return you get with people watching it all over the place.”

Magyar is normally in charge of the  Weltklasse – it is his last season this year – so has plenty of experience, although he doesn’t expect to get much sleep in August. The Weltklasse will be going ahead as usual in the same stadium just 11 days after the end of the European Championships.

He is particularly pleased that with 40-45 athletes, Switzerland will be fielding its largest delegation ever to an athletics meet. Only around 20 participated at the last European Championships in Barcelona.

Motivation

Beat Freihofer, head of communications at athletes’ federation Swiss Athleticsexternal link, said that Swiss athletes had been really motivated to train harder and invest more in these home championships.

“We hope to have some places in the different finals. It’s very hard to talk about medals because the standards are really high at the European Championships,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Freihofer tipped two athletes for a good position in the marathon: Viktor Röthlin, the winner four years ago in the European Championships in Barcelona, who will retire from professional athletics after Zurich 2014, and new Swiss Tadesse Abraham, originally from Eritrea.

Other names to look out for are the women’s national relay team – Zurich 2014’s poster girls – who broke the national record again at the Athletissima on July 3. The line-up includes Majinga Kambundji, who broke the Swiss women’s 100-metre record in June in Geneva.

“It’s very attractive for Swiss athletes to be on television, to run in a stadium in their home country,” explained Freihofer. “If they are more present that helps them to find personal sponsorship.”

It is hard to earn money in athletics in Switzerland. Freihofer estimates that only around five-ten Swiss athletes are professional. The situation is different to that in countries such as Italy or Germany, where many athletes are members of the army or police and so have time to practise, he explained.

The federation has worked hard to boost the numbers of Swiss athletes qualifying for the championships through its Swiss Starters external link2014 programme, which was launched in 2008. Setting out a detailed career plan, with goals, for individual athletes, its aim was for 30 athletes to qualify.

City boost

The Zurich city authoritiesexternal link are also hoping for a boost for the city from the championships. “This is a unique opportunity to present ourselves as a cosmopolitan and attractive cityexternal link,” said the city’s minister for sport, Gerold Lauber.

Zurich city has invested CF5.7 million ($6.4 million) in the games, Lauber told swissinfo.ch, including supporting the retopping of the Letzigrand track with a Swiss-made high-tech surface. Certain services and infrastructure around the games will also be offered free of charge.

The canton of Zurich and the federal authorities have also chipped into Zurich 2014’s CHF35 million budget.

Lauber sees economic benefits to the city in terms of overnight hotel stays – 25,000 have already been booked by the athletes, their entourages, the media and officials. Foreign and some Swiss visitors will also be staying overnight and spending their money in the city. But it is difficult to put a figure now on how much of an economic boost this will be, Lauber says.

As a marathon runner himself, the head of the school and sports department is particularly looking forward to the seeing Röthlin and co in action.

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“We have a very spectacular marathon route through the middle of Zurich city. It may not perhaps produce top times but for spectators and runners there will be a fantastic view of the lake and the city,” he said.

An athlete’s view

Robine Schürmannexternal link, who runs in the 400 metres hurdles, ran a Personal Best time of 57.51 seconds at the Swiss Meeting in Geneva on June, to qualify for Zurich 2014. The qualifying limit is 57.90.

“I trained a lot to reach this goal,” Schürmann told swissinfo.ch. “When you work a lot for a goal and you reach it, it’s a really special moment.” What’s also special is that she is local to the Zurich area and trains at the Letzigrund stadium. “When I am training, I am already imagining what the stadium will be like full of people, who will be cheering and clapping,” she said.

Schürmann, who works 60% in an office, and her coach have the goal of reaching the semifinals. She remains calm and focused. It is exciting that there will be a big Swiss team, she says. “I am sure some more will reach the qualifying limits before the championships.” 

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