American runner Steve Prefontaine (1951–1975) had a brief but glorious career in his sport in the early 1970s. A long-distance specialist who narrowly missed a medal win in his first Olympic appearance, the Oregon native known as “Pre” amassed a staggering record of victories during college and invitational meets before his untimely death at age 24. Writing in Sports Illustrated on the 30th anniversary of Prefontaine's death, Mark Baker heralded Pre as “American distance running's first, last and only rock star.”
Steven Roland Prefontaine was born in Coos Bay, Oregon, on January 25, 1951. His father Raymond was a U.S. Army veteran who had met his wife Elfriede while stationed in Berlin, Germany, where the two wed in 1948. The couple settled in Coos Bay, a thriving center of Oregon's lumber and commercial fishing industries, where Raymond built their Elrod Street house and Elfriede worked as a seamstress for a department store.
Like his two sisters, Prefontaine grew up speaking German at home, but he struggled in school and recognized early on that his physical prowess was also below the curve in comparison to his peers. “Coos Bay is a sports-minded town,” he told Sports Illustrated journalist Pat Putnam in a 1970 interview. “You had to be an athlete to be somebody. I knew I had to show everybody that I could excel at something.” He played football and basketball, putting in long hours at practice in exchange for a spot on the bench during game time.
Prefontaine discovered distance running in eighth grade. At his school, the boys’ physical-education class put students through a three-week fitness-conditioning unit and Prefontaine was surprised to do well in the running portion of it. Further training shaved time off his personal best in the one-mile event and he won a district meet after joining the school's cross country team.
The teenaged Oregonian was fortunate to live in a state that had emerged as a surprisingly strong performer in national track-and-field events in recent years. In a college sport once dominated by athletes from Notre Dame, Stanford, and other leading universities, the University of Oregon track team under legendary coach Bill Bowerman won several major titles, including the 1961 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Track and Field championship title, a first for the school. Prefontaine's coach at Marshfield High School, Walt McClure, Jr., had run for the University of Oregon Ducks under Bowerman. McClure spotted Prefontaine's talent early and put him on the Marshfield High Pirates' varsity cross-country team, where the 14-year-old finished the season ranked 53rd in the state. Prefontaine did poorly, however, during the spring-season track team and was shaken by a setback in his sophomore year when he failed to qualify for the Oregon state meet in his showcase events, the one-mile and two-mile races.
Recommitting to training, Prefontaine set a state record in the two-mile run in April of 1968 at the Corvallis Invitational meet and won the Oregon high-school title in the two-mile a few weeks later. Exactly a year later, he set a new national record time in the two-mile at Corvallis Invitational, won the 1969 high-school boys' title in the one-mile and two-mile, and after high-school graduation competed in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and international events. For college, the University of Oregon and its fabled team at the Eugene campus was an obvious home-state first choice, but Prefontaine's 8:41:5 record time in Corvallis in 1969 had roused intense interest across the United States. “It was terrible,” he told Putnam in Sports Illustrated about the persistence of college athletics recruiters. “Mail, phone calls at all hours, people showing up at the door. It got so bad I really began to wish I had never set the record.”
In the summer of 1971, Prefontaine ran against some talented African runners at the Pan-Africa-USA Track Meet at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The event attracted some 55,000 spectators, which was at the time the largest turnout for an international sporting event in a Southern state. In the lead-up to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, Prefontaine's name was often invoked as a potential medal winner. The national media picked up on the Oregonians’ nickname and were astonished by the emergence of Pre as a celebrity in a sport that had been derided in the United States as little more than a punitive exercise drawn from the military bootcamp training manual.
Prefontaine's appearance at the Olympics also served as a pointed rebuke to the traditional model of collegiate excellence: he was slight of frame, weighing just 145 pounds at five feet, nine inches, with a barrel chest. He also sported longish hair, sideburns, and a mustache that further challenged the paradigm of the wholesome, all-American athlete. In his corner, however, was Bowerman, who described him as “an exception, anyway you look at it,” during an interview with New York Times writer Neil Amdur. “He's young, he's an exceptionally physical person, he's an exceptionally emotional person, and he's the ideal kid to coach.”
The interview with Bowerman and Prefontaine ran in the New York Times on July 30, 1972, four weeks before the opening ceremony of the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was a poignant and hopeful arrival for the U.S. national track & field team: Bowerman was the coach of Prefontaine, whose parents had wed in Germany 24 years earlier, and another standout member of the team was Frank Shorter, a Yale graduate who had been born in the city to American parents a quarter-century earlier. Life magazine published a feature story on Prefontaine that ran on August 18, 1972. “I feel my potential is unlimited,” the runner then enthused to writer Bill Bruns. “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.”
In the highly anticipated men's 5,000-meter event in Munich, Prefontaine remained a contender until the final 30 meters, when a British runner surged forward to win the bronze. The gold medal went to one of Prefontaine's most formidable competitors in distance running, Finland's Lasse Virén, and Prefontaine went home devastated by his fourth-place finish. His Olympic loss, moreover, had taken place a few days after a hostage situation involving Israeli athletes and operatives of a Palestinian terrorist cell known as Black September. The two-day crisis on September 5th and 6th riveted a global audience, stoked fear inside the Olympic Village, and ultimately ended with a tragically botched rescue attempt. Because he was bilingual, Prefontaine translated the television news bulletins for his teammates.
Prefontaine graduated from the University of Oregon in 1974 with a degree in broadcast communications. In preparation for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada, he was eager to race against Virén and other top international runners, among them New Zealand's Rod Dixon, and he chafed at the outdated rules with which he was forced to comply in order to maintain his Olympic-eligibility status. Unexpectedly, the AAU restricted him to carefully planned invitational meets touted as Cold War-themed showdowns. “For me, running against the Poles and Czechs would be like running against high school kids,” he once said, according to a Sports Illustrated tribute by Kenny Moore. “And I hate all this gungho, run-for-the-red-white-and-blue attitude that the AAU spouts.”
In the spring of 1975, Prefontaine arranged an event at Hayward Field, the track at the University of Oregon, offering fans a chance to see him compete against top Finnish runners. Although Virén pleaded injury and dropped out, Shorter and several other top distance runners entered the 5,000-meter race that, scheduled for May 29, 1975, was to be the exciting finale. Like most Pre-featured events, a record crowd turned up, with 7,000 in attendance when Prefontaine won with a time of 13:23:8.
The Finns and Americans celebrated the end of the event with a party at the house of Geoff Hollister, an executive at Nike, a company founded by Bowerman and Phil Knight back in the 1960s as Blue Ribbon Sports. Shorter was staying with Kenny Moore, the Sports Illustrated writer, and Shorter and Prefontaine left the party after making arrangements to drive the Finnish runners to the airport the next morning. Prefontaine dropped off Shorter just after midnight and headed to his home, a trailer in a mobile-home park in nearby Glenwood, on the banks of the Willamette River. Driving on Skyline Boulevard, a road that wound through the hills and dipped close to the Willamette, Prefontaine lost control of his 1973 butterscotchyellow MGB convertible on a curve, hit a rock embankment, and flipped the car. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was, according to accident investigators, ejected and suffered a fatal injury to his thoracic cavity when the MGB landed on top of him.
Prefontaine's death on May 30, 1975, made international headlines. At the time, he was the first-place titleholder for seven separate track events in U.S. men's athletics, from the 2,000-meter to 10,000-meter. Shorter and other pallbearers wore tracksuits at Prefontaine's memorial service at Hayward Field, and a new woodchip runners’ trail was dedicated Pre's Trail shortly afterward. One of Eugene's most popular annual events was renamed the Prefontaine Memorial 10-Kilometer Run, and 22 years after his death the feature film Prefontaine—with a young Jared Leto in the lead—reignited interest in the talented athlete's storied career.
The crash site on Skyline Boulevard has since become a pilgrimage site for runners, who leave victory medals and race numbers at a small plaque. “Oregonians have a certain nature, I guess, and people here saw a lot of Oregon in Pre,” another Eugene runner, Jon Anderson, told Los Angeles Times writer Gerald Scott in an article commemorating the ten-year anniversary of Prefontaine's death. Tom Jordan, Prefontaine's biographer, also lamented the running world's loss, telling Scott: “He had at least six good competitive years ahead of him at that point. Even then, people who didn't like track used to come out to watch Pre run, just like people who don't like tennis will go see John McEnroe play. He had the charisma to be able to take track to a new level of popularity.”
Jordan, Tom, Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine, Rodale Press, 1996.
Life, August 18, 1972, pp. 51–52.
Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1985.
New York Times, July 30, 1972.
Sports Illustrated, June 15, 1970; June 9, 1975; May 30, 2005.❑