Prefontaine, Steve Roland

views updated


(b. 25 January 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon; d. 30 May 1975 in Eugene, Oregon), popular long-distance runner who held every U.S. record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and who campaigned for the reform of U.S. amateur athletics.

Born to Raymond Prefontaine, a carpenter, and Elfriede Senholz Prefontaine, a seamstress, Prefontaine and his two sisters were raised in a small coastal town in Oregon. A bench-warmer on his junior high school football team, Pre-fontaine turned to running during his sophomore year in high school, when he discovered that the longer the run, the closer he was to the lead. The five-foot, nine-inch, 152-pound athlete was far better suited to running, a sport that emphasized speed and agility. In 1967 he joined the Marshfield High School track team. Under the coaching of Walter McClure, a former track star at the University of Oregon, Prefontaine went undefeated his junior and senior years, setting the national high school record for the two-mile run. Prefontaine graduated from Marshfield in 1969. At the conclusion of his high school career, Prefontaine quickly entered international competition. He placed fourth at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships the summer after his senior year, earning a spot on the national team that competed at international events. He went on to race in four international meets that summer, placing as high as second in the 5,000 meters against world-class competition.

Widely recruited by college track programs, Prefontaine chose the nearby University of Oregon. Oregon's legendary track coach Bill Bowerman had already trained several U.S. and world record holders, and he recognized that same potential in Prefontaine. In a letter to the Coos Bay community thanking them for their role in Prefontaine's success so far, Bowerman showed confidence that Prefontaine could become "the greatest runner in the world." In thanking Coos Bay, Bowerman touched upon a key aspect of Prefontaine's appeal—his connection with the community of fans that supported him throughout his career. The chants of "Go Pre!" at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field could become deafening. In thirty-eight races at Hayward, Prefontaine lost only three times, all at one mile, which was not his specialty. He openly admitted that he ran best in front of "his people."

In 1970 Prefontaine won the first of his unprecedented four National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) three-mile track titles. That he won despite suffering a cut on his foot that required twelve stitches only three days before the race underscored the tough, go-for-broke style that characterized Prefontaine's running. Though at times considered arrogant, he ran for guts, not glory. Prefontaine became known for pushing the pace of a race early, running in front rather than hanging back to conserve his strength for a finishing kick, or sprint, at the end. This style usually worked well for him, and in his collegiate races he routinely broke his opponents with a fast, punishing pace.

Though Prefontaine's all-or-nothing approach to running made for exciting races, it did not serve him well in his biggest race on the international stage. Since his first successes as a high school junior, he had thought about competing in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. He had dominated the 5,000 in the U.S. Olympic trials and considered himself well prepared. Though shaken by the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the games, Prefontaine looked good in the qualifying heats. The field of runners for the final was perhaps one of the best ever assembled, including Lasse Viren of Finland, who had won the 10,000 meters in world-record time earlier in the games, and Mohamed Gamoudi of Tunisia. At twenty-one, Prefontaine was the youngest in the field by two years.

The race began at a surprisingly slow pace that favored Viren, Gamoudi, and other strong kickers in the world-class field. Prefontaine wanted a fast race that came down to "who's toughest"—his kind of race. With four laps to go and the crowd on his side, he took control and dramatically increased the pace. After two more laps most of the field had dropped back, but Viren and Gamoudi stayed with him. Viren held a slight lead, and with 300 meters left Prefontaine started to pull away from the inside of the track to pass him, but Gamoudi, showing a veteran's tactical sense, moved to cut him off before he could pass. Prefontaine tried to pass Viren again on the last curve, and again Gamoudi quickly cut him off. His momentum gone and energy spent, Prefontaine staggered the last dozen meters and was passed by Ian Stewart of Great Britain for the bronze.

Prefontaine was deeply disappointed and upset that the race had been decided by tactical tricks rather than blood-and-guts running. Still, he was young, and long-distance runners typically reached their prime in their late twenties. Prefontaine rebounded after his loss to have an outstanding senior season at Oregon. At the end of his college career he had won seven NCAA titles, three in cross-country (he skipped the 1972 cross-country season to recover from the Olympics) and four in the three-mile. Prefontaine graduated from the University of Oregon in 1973 with a B.A. in communications. He spent the next two years running as an amateur for the Oregon Track Club. By the end of his career Prefontaine owned every U.S. record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and between 2 and 6 miles. He was the best U.S. distance runner of his time.

There was much more to Prefontaine than races and records. He often held running clinics at high schools and at the Oregon State Prison. He was also an activist for the reform of amateur athletics. The AAU's restrictions on financial support for amateur athletes, as well as its sanctions on athletes for skipping AAU events to participate in European meets, made life difficult for many amateurs in the United States. Prefontaine was an outspoken and defiant critic of the system. Despite having little money, he refused to become a professional, although he was offered up to $200,000 a year to join the emerging professional circuit. Instead, he continued to push for a reorganization of amateur athletics.

Prefontaine was also the first athlete to sign with Nike, a company cofounded by his former track coach Bill Bowerman. He took the title of National Public Relations Manager and initiated the campaign to get top international athletes to wear Nike shoes. A statue of Prefontaine stands at the Nike corporate headquarters, and the Prefontaine Classic track meet, held annually at Hayward Field, has become one of the premier track events on U.S. soil.

Prefontaine ran his last race on 29 May 1975 at Hayward Field in front of his hometown crowd. It was the final meet of a tour of top Finnish athletes that he had organized. He won, extending his winning streak at distances over a mile at Hayward to twenty-five. Later that night, while driving home, Prefontaine died in a single-car accident. He is buried at Sunset Memorial Park in Coos Bay. His brief but extraordinary career was captured years later in a documentary and two feature films.

Prefontaine's brash, charismatic style, both on and off the track, helped to popularize the sport of running and gave him the stature to further the cause of athlete's rights. Donna De Verona, a 1964 Olympic medalist in swimming and television sports commentator, noted that Prefontaine's outspokenness and willingness to risk AAU sanctions made him a "lightning rod for the tensions between the AAU and amateur athletes," and that "he was instrumental in helping the cause of athletes' rights."

In 1978, three years after Prefontaine's death, Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act, which stripped the AAU of its authority over amateur athletes. The Prefontaine Classic continues to draw the top national and international track and field athletes and is one of the best attended meets in the U.S. Prefontaine was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976.

Prefontaine's biography, Pre! (1977), was written by Tom Jordan. Obituaries are in the New York Times (31 May 1975), and in Newsweek and Time (both 9 Jun. 1975). A documentary film on his life, Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story (1995), was narrated by Ken Kesey. Two feature films were produced about his life: Prefontaine (1996), and Without Limits (1998).

J. Christopher Jolly