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February 26, 2018

A Brief History of the World Indoor Championships

This March’s IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, UK will mark the 17th edition of the global championship. Due to Portland hosting the last edition edition (in an Olympic year, no less), this championship has somewhat seen an increase in interest to an American audience.

From its inception in 1987, the success of this event has largely depended on the participation of American athletes.

Officially, the first world indoor championship was held in Indianapolis in 1987. Unofficially, however, it was the second edition of the event since Paris hosted what was then-called the World Indoor Games in 1985, which was essentially a trial run for the inaugural world indoor championship two years later.

The Paris World Indoor Games was almost a one-off event. Because it fell in the heart of the well-established North American indoor season, participation of US and Canadian athletes was fairly low. With indoor competition being such a tradition in the colder regions of the Western hemisphere, any World Indoor Championship event would have to have robust support from Americans and Canadians to thrive.

It was this notion that drove the IAAF to rebrand the event and select Indianapolis as host. In retrospect, Indy seems an obvious choice — not only was it an American city with a history of hosting indoor events, but it was also home of The Athletics Congress – a precursor to USATF.

At the time, though, the IAAF rationale wasn’t so clear. In fact, in a public interview at the time of the selection, TAC’s news director Pete Cava admitted, “I don’t know the actual reasons [why Indianapolis was picked.]” In this era of bid scandals and FBI investigations, such a sentiment seems unfamiliar, if not a little innocent.

But the Indianapolis event was a success. So much so, that the women established new championship records for every single event that was contested (when comparing it to the previous World Indoor Games in Paris).

The championship only grew from there. Originally it was held every other odd year, the same as the Outdoor World Championships, a symmetry to the point that they were held in the same year — world indoors in March and then world outdoors later in the summer. That changed in 2004, when Budapest hosted the event one year after Birmingham. Perhaps wanting to spread out its championships, the IAAF decided to have a championship (either indoors or outdoors) every year, including Olympic years.

The 1990s were a time of experimentation for the Championship. Prize money wasn’t introduced until the 1991 edition, and then it wasn’t further increased until 1999, which was also the first time a non-European or North American nation hosted (it was in Maebashi, Japan). In fact, only one other non-Western nation has hosted World Indoors: Doha, Qatar in 2010. (Istanbul, Turkey, in 2012 may also be up for debate.) In 2020, Nanjing, China will be the host, further growing the global reach of the Championships.

Racewalking events were fairly quickly discarded, being done away with in the first five years of the Championships. The 200m, as well, was eliminated by the mid-2000s because it was unfair — due to the tight, banked turns, anyone who did not draw an outside lane did not stand a competitive chance.

But other events were added in the interim. The same year that saw the elimination of racewalking featured the addition of the men’s heptathlon and women’s pentathlon. A 4 x 400m relays, perhaps the most exciting event in track, along with the women’s triple jump had been added in the previous Championship. Women’s pole vault became an official event in 1997, which was two years before it had a place in the World Outdoor Championships.

The past 17 editions have seen their fair share of change. In many ways, World Indoors has given the IAAF a chance to experiment with different approaches to presenting the sport. Throughout that time, the event has consistently grown in import and prestige. Look of that growth to continue in 2018 and beyond.

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