The message came through Twitter from @UBSathletics, an account I did not even follow: "Would you like to be a VIP at the opening day of the European Athletics Championships in Zurich?"
I did not have to think twice: Yes, yes I would! I am not one to watch a lot of sports, as I would rather be out there doing it myself. But track and field has those disciplines that make the human condition so beautiful. I had been invited by Sherpany, a sponsor of the Swiss Athletics Championships in Frauenfeld, to see the final day there and was already familiar with sons of the athletes who would represent Switzerland in Zürich.
Opening Day (and Hanging with the VIP's)
After what seemed like weeks of rain, the opening day of the European Championships was sunny and warm - but not too hot. Perfect conditions. I was greeted by Adrian Wyss from UBS. He invited me to the welcome center where I had the chance to meet several other guests.
I also learned how UBS and their social media agency had put together several platforms to make it easy to follow and support Swiss athletes. Check out:
- Swiss Starters Live Center (for a stream of live updates on the events)
- Go Swiss Starters! (to send a greet, tweet or Facebook message wishing Swiss athletes good luck)
Inside Zürich's Letzigrund Stadium
During the morning, I was able to watch the first qualifying heats of the Men's 100 m, the Women's 1500 m, the Women's 100 m hurdles and the Men's 400 m hurdles, as well as the Men's 1500 m steeple. On the field, there were qualifiers for Women's javelin, shot-put, Women's pole jump, and Men's long jump.
A true highlight came, however, after the events for the morning and early afternoon ended. At this point, I got a tour of the Letzigrund Stadium! I was able to experience firsthand what competing athletes go through each time they step out onto the field. By the way: My tour guide was Katharina Roth, a former Swiss national shot-put athlete.
The tour started in the the depths of the stadium. Athletes are brought here by minibus from the training grounds at Sihlhölzli (track) or Uto-Grund (throwing). Before getting in the minibus, athletes must give up all electronic devices - no more texts, Facebook posts or telephone calls to coaches, family and friends.
"Green Wave" for Athletes
Katharina told us that the city controls the traffic lights between the training grounds and the stadium. This is to ensure that athletes get a "green wave", arriving in time for the competition. From there, they go to Call Room 2 where they will wait to get called onto the field.
There is a small track allowing them to run and jump to stay loose as they had been sitting for some 15 minutes during transfer. Special tracking chips built into their starting numbers help to ensure the accuracy of time - and also that the right people are competing in the first place.
Stepping out onto the Field
With as many as 25'000 people watching the field, it must be an exhilarating feeling to step out there. Field athletes will go to the center of the stadium where their events take place, while track athletes remain - well - on the track.
At Zürich's Letzigrund stadium, the new racetrack was built by Schaffhausen based Conica which discovered a new way of creating an optimal surface for running. It has been laid over the former track, and instead of a soft top surface, it has a hard cover with a soft middle.
Since less energy is lost on the track, this technology allows for runners to go faster (but landings still remain quite soft). This also requires special spikes to get the right amount of traction. And finally, it means that Zurich 2014 is set to see some new records!
You and Your Shadow
After completing their event, all athletes (no matter how successful) must go through the press boxes. In Zürich, Swiss TV stations occupy the first set of boxes, but there are TV stations from 50 different nations that athletes pass through.
Right after this, the top three athletes as well as a number of randomly selected athletes get their so-called shadow - a person that accompanies them while doping controls are done. The shadow accompanies them until the samples have been submitted (yes, even to the toilet). Athletes are the only ones allowed to touch the samples until they are sealed, though.
As the shadow follows them every step of the way, there are more press boxes to go through: Radio broadcasters and print media. Then there is the press conference room for the winners and/or scandals (the latter of which we hope not to see this time).
After all of the interviews with the press and the submission of drug tests, the athletes can finally collect their electronics and personal gear.
Though the steps are quite exhaustive and can take up to two hours for what is perhaps just an 11 second race, athletes probably find that the time just flies by.
Check out this beautiful infographic about the European Athletics Championship 2014
(All photographs copyright by Christian Langenegger)