Prefontaine isn’t easy to forget
May 31, 2005
“Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.” – Steve Prefontaine
Thirty years ago on Monday America lost one of its great distance runners of that or any other era when Steve Prefontaine was tragically killed in a single car rollover in Eugene, Ore.
Only 24 at the time, Prefontaine owned each of the eight American records between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and between two miles and six miles. He also won seven NCAA titles and held eight collegiate records during his career between 1969 and ’73 at the University of Oregon. His success – along with Frank Shorter’s marathon gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich – is often credited with igniting the running boom in America in the ’70s.
His story has inspired two movies (Prefontaine in 1996 and Without Limits in 1998) … statues can be found in Eugene as well as his hometown, Coos Bay … runners and joggers to this day still turn out to the Steve Prefontaine Memorial Jogging Trail in Eugene … and a meet named in his memory, the Prefontaine Classic, will be held this coming Saturday at Hayward Field in Eugene.
Why? Unless you were there at the time, it might be hard to understand.
Prefontaine really only had a short run in the limelight. He never won an Olympic gold medal – he finished fourth in the 5,000 at the Munich Games in ’72, although Pre’s supporters firmly believe his best days were yet to come. But it was more than that. The man had charisma and he was outspoken, especially when it came to his feelings about injustices by the AAU, formerly the nation’s governing track and field organization, and its treatment of amateur athletes.
He was a crowd favorite and his presence in any race – especially in Eugene – usually brought fans to their feet. He loved the fans, and he said so when asked about his future running plans after his Olympic 5,000 in Munich.
“If anything will keep me running, it’s the fantastic response. Complete strangers write me wishing me well. The local people are so great. I would have to move away from Oregon. I couldn’t retire here,” Prefontaine told Track & Field News.
Prefontaine was not one to sit back and let things happen. Win or lose, he went out and made them happen. That was Prefontaine’s objective when he ran the Olympic 5,000 in Munich. Finland’s Lasse Viren, who only a few days before had recovered from a fall to the track to win the 10,000, came back to complete the first of his two fabled Olympic 5,000-10,000 gold medal doubles.
This 5,000 was special in its own right, and the following is a brief account from Track & Field News (a copy was made available by Steve Vandenburg of Carson City, who was in Munich for the 1972 Olympics): The early pace was slow, with the leaders passing the first two miles in 8:56.4, pedestrian-like by world-class standards. Knowing he didn’t have the raw speed to run a traditional tactical race and beat a field loaded with runners known for their kick at the end, Prefontaine made his move with four laps to go on the track. He pulled the field through the next lap in 62.5 seconds. He ran the next in 61.5. And the next in 60.3, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
Viren, defending Olympic champion Mohamed Gamoudi of Tunisia, and Prefontaine were the leaders as the bell sounded for the last lap. Prefontaine try to start an all-out sprint to the finish as he headed into the backstretch, but Gamoudi made his move at the same time and cut off the American. Prefontaine tried to move again and closed in on Viren as the runners headed into the final 200 meters, but there was no catching the legendary Finn, who ran his final lap in 55.8. Prefontaine, his energy spent from the torrid late pace, faded and was ultimately denied any medal when Britain’s Ian Stewart passed him in the final 15 meters.
For the most part, America has not been a factor on the world distance running stage in at least 20 years, but there is hope now with such talented young stars as 19-year-old Galen Rupp, a freshman who recently helped the University of Oregon win the Pac-10 men’s team championship, rekindled some of the old spark among fans in Eugene when he ran a junior national 10,000 record time of 28:15.52 before a chanting crowd of more than 3,000 at the Oregon Twilight Meet.
“To win a race here in an Oregon uniform, there’s nothing like it,” Rupp told the Eugene Register-Guard afterward. “People can say that it’s not what it once was, but I’ve thought about running at Hayward Field ever since I was in high school. Everybody goes nuts and you can’t ask for a better environment.”
So, there is no forgetting Steve Prefontaine. Not as long as any young distance runner comes out and takes pride in running on guts.
— Contact Dave Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (775) 881-1220.
PRE’S PERSONAL BESTS
1,500 meters: 3:38.1, June 28, 1973, Helsinki
One mile: 3:54.6, June 20, 1973, Eugene
2,000 meters: 5:01.4, May 9, 1975, Coos Bay
3,000 meters: 7:42.6, July 2, 1974, Milan, Italy
5,000 meters: 13:21.87, June 26, 1974, Helsinki, Finland
10,000 meters: 27:43.6, April 27, 1974, Eugene
Born: January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Ore.
Died: May 30, 1975 in Eugene, Ore.
Degree: B.A. in communications
High school: He went undefeated in cross country and track as a junior and senior at Marshfield High in Coos Bay. As a senior, he also broke the previous American record for two miles at the Corvallis Invitational with a time of 8:41.5.