UO ambassadors guide global athletes around Eugene for World Junior Track and Field Championships

There’s a maroon flag hanging from a third-story window at the Walton-Clark residence hall. The slinking fabric is the only indication Nagina Pirzad needs to locate her assignment: the Moroccan junior national track and field team. She, alongside two other women are one of 116 ambassadors from the University of Oregon who will guide the far-flung athletes around the campus and the city in the days leading up to the World Junior track and field championships.

The athletes began descending on the Pacific Northwest last week. One look around campus over the weekend harkens somewhat to Copacabana Beach in Brazil last month, with flags, representing the 176 countries participating that are draped over Oregon Hall or waving next to the Hayward Field track. Campus has been covered in camera-equipped people speaking a variety of languages while posing in front of Hayward’s gates and athletes wheeling luggage from team buses to the residence halls.

Pirzad, a junior in journalism and international studies, finally catches the attention of Rhizlane Siba, an 18-year-old high jumper and the first to arrive from the Moroccan squad. Locked out of the residence hall, Pirzad beckons in French for her to come downstairs and get introduced to the ambassadors.

“It’s our job to know when our team athletes are competing and stuff. We’re supposed to be there for the team whenever they need anything,” Pirzad said later. “Not really an errand boy, not entirely an interpreter. We’re the middle men between them and TrackTown [USA] or them and the university.”

Pirzad and her partners, Judy Alrasheed, who just graduated with an economics degree, and Megan Kupres, a human physiology and chemistry major, offer themselves as what they call “attachés.” There will be more than 1,700 athletes making their way into town, all under the age of 20. The three of them have charge over athletes from Morocco, Tunisia and Djibouti.

Though the athlete-to-ambassador ratio can seem overwhelming, the women talk excitedly about the upcoming meet.

“I feel like this is a learning experience for everyone. For TrackTown, for the U of O, for everyone,” Pirzad said. “Even the global ambassador program was kind of made up through the Office of International Affairs because they said ‘Wait, we have a lot of students with international experience and speak a bunch of languages we should get them to work closely with these athletes.’”

The students are part of the first ambassador program for the World Juniors. Eugene is the first city in the United States to host the six-day meet, something TrackTown USA has been working toward for two years. For both the international athletes and the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federation, Eugene needs to be a great experience.

“The idea was to develop the global ambassador program as the first of its kind to help bridge the linguistic and cultural barriers,” said Sheila Bong, program director of the global studies institute in the office of international affairs.

Eugene’s track pedigree has made it an ideal destination for the IAAF’s foray into the United States. Hayward Field, the birthplace of Nike and host to a couple Olympic track trials.

The city could complement the event itself as a prestigious showcase of up-and-coming talent. One example, Usain Bolt, before he became the face of track and field, blew up on the scene when he became the youngest person to win gold at the meet back in 2002.

Though the climate around the track remains, the World Juniors could be an audition for the city and the region. Eventually, they could host the World Outdoor Championships, according to TrackTown officials. The ambassadors themselves are a major component of that — to help ensure everything goes smoothly.

The ambassadors will essentially be the eyes and ears for both the university and TrackTown USA, though there’s not a perfect job description for them yet.

“They’re already fielding questions and providing answers to random types of questions,” Bong said. “They’ll be acting as guides and cross-cultural interpreters. They can provide logistical aid and support throughout the university.”

In order to get a better grasp on the countries they will be working with the ambassadors who were in class for the spring and for one week in the summer. They’re volunteers, though they did receive class credit, Pirzad said the skills that the ambassadors learn is payment enough.

“I think there’s skills not just for sporting events. There’s conflict-resolution, you always need conflict-resolution,” she said. “And neutral observing so you don’t start fights with people and not assuming things about people. Especially if you’re involved in international affairs they’re good skills to have.”

Being around world-class athletes appeals to the women, but they said the chance to experience another country first-hand and watch the athletes do the same with the United States, is the best part.

“I’ll get to interact and experience something new with them,” says Alrasheed. “We’re from the same continent but a different environment, like [states] here in America.”

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