Nick Willis at the 2012 ITM in Christchurch (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature

A decade after devastating earthquake, Christchurch’s ITM ready to return to centre stage


The global pandemic has meant event organisers across the world have had to call upon agile and creative thinking, not to mention a large dose of resilience and determination, to make events work within the health and safety guidelines of the COVID-age. 

Yet if event organisers need any hope and guidance for how to pull together in challenging times, they should draw inspiration from the team behind the Continental Tour Bronze status International Track Meet (ITM) in Christchurch – and first World Athletics Continental Tour meet of 2021, a series which will encompass more than 100 meets across six continents.

The inaugural ITM was launched in 2009 after a plea made by New Zealand’s Olympic 1500m silver medallist Nick Willis for more international meets in his homeland. 

For the first two years the meet ticked every box, witnessing a number of New Zealand resident records, PBs and major championship qualification marks.

Earthquake strikes

The 2011 event scheduled for 26 February promised to be the best yet. A mouth-watering mile showdown was planned between home favourite Willis and US record-holder Alan Webb. Galen Rupp, the 2012 Olympic 10,000m silver medallist, was another anticipated highlight as he pursued the US record in the 10,000m. 

Yet just four days out from the meet, Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake which led to the death of 185 people.  

The city’s only all-weather track, the QEII Stadium, originally built to stage the 1974 Commonwealth Games, was irreparably damaged and the event organisers were forced to cancel the meet.

One of the team of meet organisers, Paul Coughlan says: “It was the greatest meet that never happened (in New Zealand). We had to contact Galen Rupp and his people, who were en route at the time in Australia, and the other athletes to tell them not to come to Christchurch. 

“In such times priorities obviously switched from organising track meet to the well-being of your family. But we put a huge amount of emotional energy into making that meet happen. It was gutting when we quickly came to the realisation that it was not safe for the athletes to come to Christchurch.” 

A hastily arranged athletics meet was organised in Wellington by Willis to raise $20,000 for the Christchurch Earthquake fund but with no all-weather facility the meet’s future looked in grave jeopardy.

Back on (grass) track in 2012

Yet Coughlan and his team of organisers, who also included Leyton Tremain, Craig Motley and Mark Reid, were determined for the event and the city to continue to enjoy international athletics and in 2012 – the event was organised at a 331m grass track at Christ’s College, the first international sporting event to be staged since the earthquake. 

“The public really got behind the event and supported it in droves. There was a queue over 100 metres long to get in which is almost unheard of for a track and field meeting.”   

Staged on the grass track at Christ’s College as a fitting way to toast the 50th anniversary of Sir Peter Snell’s world 800m and 880yd record set on a grass track at Christchurch’s Lancaster Park, the intimate venue proved a big success with emerging shot star Tom Walsh benefiting from the meet which was held at the venue from 2012 to 2014. 

“The ITM in Christchurch has been hugely important to me,” explains Walsh, who has gone on to win three world titles, one outdoor and two indoors. 

“I don’t often get to compete much in New Zealand, so it was really cool to compete at an international meet in my hometown.”

Takes on street meet format to showcase local stars

By 2015 and with Walsh now firmly established as a world-class shot putter, he took on a key role in helping the next stage of the ITM’s evolution. 

Tom floated the idea to organisers that the ITM should adopt a street meet format to help generate more excitement. The team were convinced by the move and in 2015 the BIG Shot was born.

The competition was run annually up until 2019 and attracted some of the world’s shot putters including 2016 Olympic champion Ryan Crouser, two-time world indoor champion Ryan Whiting and Poland’s 2017 European indoor champion Konrad Bukowiecki.

 

Tom Walsh competing in the Big Shot competition in Christchurch (Getty Images)Tom Walsh competing in the Big Shot competition in Christchurch (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

A street mile was also introduced and reflecting on this period of the ITM’s history Walsh takes enormous pride in his role. 

“I’m passionate about competition and how we can do things better,” he explains. “So, to have played a part in helping the guys out, in terms of attracting people to come to New Zealand to compete and help promote the event was a great thing to be involved with."

Returns as kick-off meeting for 2021 Continental Tour

However, since the opening of the new all-weather track facility at Nga Puna Wai in Christchurch in 2019, organisers have sought that the ITM return to its previous status as a traditional track and field meet.

Last year with the New Zealand Track & Field Championships held at the venue for a second successive year, organisers did not wish to over burden the region to organise the ITM. However, on Saturday (6) the International Track Meet is set to finally return to its original form as a traditional athletics competition.  

This year’s event has attracted leading New Zealand shot put stars Walsh and Valerie Adams, the Oceania hammer record-holder Lauren Bruce and “New Zealand’s fastest women” Zoe Hobbs.

However, the great shame is because of border restrictions this year’s event – which offers free entry for spectators - will be minus any overseas athletes. 

Some have questioned the use of the term International in the title of the meeting but after some deliberation Coughlan and his team opted to go ahead with the title. 

“The irony of celebrating our full return one decade on from our city’s worst natural disaster amid a global pandemic is not lost on us," he says. "It is a very frustrating situation and we agonised over whether we should still use the name,” he explains.  

“We decided, however, that we still had some great international athletes competing at the meet, they are just all from New Zealand, so we retained the title.” 

However, for the event to have endured and survived some tough times bears testament to the sheer desire and resilience of the organisers. 

“It has been one hell of an effort to keep the event going,” explains Walsh. “The organisers are all hugely passionate and they have done a wonderful job. I know they would have liked a full international field this year, but that is the world we live in at the moment. It will still be a great show and I hope the Christchurch public will come along and watch.” 

Steve Landells for World Athletics

How to follow and watch the ITM Christchurch

Start time: 17:45 local (GMT+13)