“I’m not afraid of losing. But if I do, I want it to be a good race. I’m an artist, a performer. I want people to appreciate the way I run.”
— Steve Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine’s life was cut short about five hours after he triumphed in the 5,000 meters in Eugene, Oregon, in a one-vehicle automobile accident 40 years ago on Saturday.
Since his death at age 24, Prefontaine’s legacy has grown, his fame has soared far beyond the University of Oregon within running circles spanning the globe, especially in the United States, and his historical importance for the sport has also increased.
“It’s impossible to put a measurement on the influence his life and accomplishments in track have had on runners worldwide,” his legendary Oregon coach, Bill Dellinger, has been quoted as saying.
But, he added, “I can tell you it has been huge.”
Prefontaine, who stood just 175 cm, had remarkable success as a competitor. All told, he won 119 of 151 outdoor track races (78.8 percent) he entered, including those he raced for his hometown Coos Bay (Oregon) Marshfield High School. Some sources, however, reported he won 120 of 153 races.
He was affectionately known as “Pre” to friends, teammates and legions of fans. He was posthumously inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame.
“Man imposes his own limitations. Limitation was not in Steve’s frame of reference,” Walt McClure, who coached Prefontaine at Marshfield High, once said. “He was continually extending the boundaries of his frontier. I will always cherish the many hours we had together in his early years of training.”
Here’s a list of some notable Prefontaine feats and influential accomplishments:
- At the time of his death, Prefontaine held American records in the 2-mile (8 minutes, 18 seconds) and 3-mile races (12:51), and the 5,000 meters (13:21.87) and 10,000 (27:43.60), and he had set 14 national records, plus eight U.S. collegiate records.
- He claimed NCAA cross country titles in 1970, 1971 and ’73 and bagged four NCAA titles in the 3-mile race from 1970-73.
- He placed fourth in the 5,000 at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, slipping out of a medal spot over the final 10 meters in a race won by Finland’s Lasse Viren.
- Years before Michael Jordan and countless other high-profile athletes made millions of dollars for and from Nike, Prefontaine became the first athlete to sign with the future global giant, doing so for $5,000 in 1974.
- The documentary “Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story” was completed in 1995. Two years later, the film “Prefontaine,” with Jared Leto in the starring role, was released, followed by another movie, “Without Limits,” with Billy Crudup playing Prefontaine, in ’98.
- The Prefontaine Classic has been an annual track meet at Oregon’s famed Hayward Field since ’75, and this year’s two-day meet is being held on Friday and Saturday. Previously called the Bowerman Classic, the event’s name was changed by the Oregon Track Club, and held six days after his death. What’s more, the Prefontaine Memorial Run, a 10-km race held each year in Coos Bay, is scheduled to be staged for the 36th time on Sept. 19.
- He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated on June 15, 1970 — an image of him running, of course.
“Pre became the definition of what a distance runner can be,” Howard Banich, his former University of Oregon track and field teammate, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
“He inspired runners since his death because of his legacy, and his fame spread far beyond Oregon because of his personality and accomplishments. Heck, who doesn’t want to be more like Pre?”
What is his lasting legacy as an athlete?
“Honesty, audacity, determination and his singularly awesome ability to push his limits,” added Banich, now a senior development engineer for Nike.
“His death left so much athletic and personal potential unfulfilled. Damn.”
Steve Bence, another of Prefontaine’s Oregon teammates who now works as the director of Nike’s global transition management, summed up his legacy this way in an interview with The Japan Times: “His goal was to win an Olympic gold medal and he said he’d never be fully satisfied until he held a world record. But his legacy was not what he ran, rather it was how he ran.
“He loved to run from the front, all out, and he said his competitor would have to bleed to beat him. Pre was a showman. He put on a performance and drew energy from the fans. Runners today love him because Pre made running cool.”
Before his death, Track & Field News magazine noted, Prefontaine was by far the most popular American figure in the sport, The New York Times reported in his obituary. “. . . Pre became as familiar to track followers as Wilt, O.J. and Dr. J,” the newspaper added.
Mark Feig, one of Prefontaine’s college teammates, recalled a trip to Finland they took in 1973. In an interview with The Japan Times, Feig said Pre’s fierce competitive drive was on display there, a memory that immediately comes to mind when he thinks about the late hero.
“I was a sub 4-minute miler at the University of Oregon at the time, a junior I believe, in 1973, Feig said, “and (in Finland) it was 3,000 meters, which for a miler is like a marathon. They didn’t have the 1,500 or a mile that day, so I got to move up. Steve said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll run together, you set the pace, and I’ll stay right behind you to keep us moving and you’ll do real well.’
“So not knowing better, I set the pace, for the first six laps of about 7.5 laps, and Steve was talking to me the entire time, just pushing me to keep it going. With 1.5 laps to go, he took off and a couple of the Finns with him. He obviously won the race, I ended up fourth in a pretty fast time, and Steve’s comments to me, were: ‘Great job. You should have come with me, when I took off, as you would have gotten second the way you were running.’ ”
Perusing various websites, one will come across a wealth of information and rich anecdotes about Prefontaine, first-hand accounts from those who witnessed his racing exploits or competed with and against him.
For those who interacted with him, what he said to them also remains etched in their memories decades later.
Ron Appling and Prefontaine attended the same algebra class at Marshfield High, and decades later Oregon Quarterly reported on Appling’s 61-page scrapbook containing articles, photos and other mementos from Pre’s life.
Once an aspiring football player, Appling was nudged into becoming a runner by Prefontaine, according to Oregon Quarterly, after the former suffered a broken arm on the gridiron. This was Prefontaine’s recipe for success to Appling, the latter recalled for the summer 2014 issue feature: “Your body will tell you that it’s tired and can’t go any faster. You take charge and tell your body, ‘No, I can go faster.’ ”
That determination resonates with those who knew him and those who only know of him.
“The Pre Classic is the premier meet in the U.S. every year and is one of the best stops on the Diamond League tour, keeping his name and legacy in the spotlight and reinforcing his influence on the sport,” Banich told this newspaper.
Another compelling viewpoint: “Pre was the consummate underdog, a blue-collar kid who lived in a trailer and worked at a bar. His style was too brash, his attitude too cocky,” wrote Ben DeJarnette in Oregon Quarterly. “He wasn’t lean enough for the long-distance races, some said, didn’t have enough raw speed for the mile.”
And so he defied conventional thinking and charted his own course to athletic greatness.
While at Oregon, ex-teammate Dave Taylor saw Prefontaine’s singular focus as a runner.
“His racing philosophy, and probably his life philosophy is summed up in his quote; ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,’ ” Taylor recalled in a recent interview.
In addition to Prefontaine’s astonishing collection of victories, he made his mark off the track and running trails.
At the Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem, he visited prisoners and talked to them about the benefits of exercise and training. He established a running program. “Pre loved the down-and-outs,” his former Ducks teammate Pat Tyson,” told Oregon Quarterly. “He wanted to make a difference.”
And that he did.
“He used to give seminars to inmates about how running can help give a sense of mental stability,” Oregon Public Broadcasting reported last June.
DeJarnette chronicled the success of the prison running program, noting some 250 prisoners participated in 90-minute workouts, with hundreds on a waiting list to join in.
“In a testament to Pre’s enduring legacy, outside runners still enter the prison for 10K races during the summer, giving inmates the chance to test their fitness against new competition,” DeJarnette wrote.
Bence, a consultant for “Without Limits,” made an important observation that Prefontaine’s public feud, his anti-establishment stance, with the American Athletic Union (AAU) eventually brought profound changes to sports in the United States.
Track & Field News chronicled this issue in the 1970s.
In a verbal assault against the status quo, Prefontaine announced he would not compete in the 1974 AAU Championships.
“I’m going to compete all through their moratorium, and if they want to take me to court, that’s fine with me,” Prefontaine told Track & Field News at the time. “I can take them for all they’re worth. What does it prove running the AAU meet? The AAU doesn’t care about athletes; why should I care about them?”
Indeed, his voice carried immense weight.
Said Taylor: “Pre was an advocate for the athlete, to give the athlete freedom from an overly controlling oversight organization, the AAU at the time. Professional track and field is a completely different situation and opportunity today because of athletes like Pre who challenged the status quo. Plus he had a James Dean aura about him, a Rebel With a Cause in his case, instead of a Rebel Without a Cause . . .”
“While foreign athletes received financial support to train and compete, the AAU enforced strict amateur rules on the U.S. athletes,” Bence recalled. “Until Pre graduated in December 1973 he was able to live on his full scholarship and summer jobs. Starting in January 1974, Pre was on his own financially and struggled.
“After Pre’s death in 1975, his fellow athletes continued his rebellion against the AAU which resulted in the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 (signed into law by President Jimmy Carter), which effectively removed the AAU from its governance role. In 1981 the Cascade Runoff in Portland, Oregon, was the first U.S. race to openly give prize money to amateur runners.”
Call it a fitting eternal victory for Steve Prefontaine.
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