Duncan Mackay

Steve Prefontaine was an American distance runner who competed nearly half-a-century ago and whose career was cut tragically short at the age of only 24 when he was killed in a car crash.

At the time of his death in May 1975, Prefontaine held every American outdoor track record between 2,000 and 10,000 metres. He was brash, cocky, charismatic and crowds in the United States loved him.

Internationally, though, he made less of an impact and the only medal he won at a major event was a gold in the 5,000m at the Pan American Games in Cali in 1971.

So, you would be forgiven if you have never heard of him.

Yet the hold of "Pre", as he is widely known, on the running world's imagination is unparalleled.

Only last Saturday (May 28), the US hosted its annual World Athletics Diamond League event known as the "Prefontaine Classic" which has taken place in some form since 1975 after first being held only six days after his death when it was hastily renamed to mark the tragedy.

This Saturday (June 4) the Eugene Symphony is debuting a new piece of music entitled simply, Prefontaine. It is a tribute to "one of Oregon’s greatest champions," according to the publicity material, which goes on to claim that "his accomplishments still resonate across the world today."

Due to be performed at the University of Oregon, Prefontaine’s alma mater, "the piece includes projected still imagery, quotations from and about Steve Prefontaine, and words of tribute submitted by his fans across the country."

This is set to be just the beginning of this Prefontaine nostalgia-fest as next month’s World Athletics Championships is due to take at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, where he won 35 of his 38 races and fans used to shout his name, "Pre!" incessantly when he competed at and wore tee-shirts with the words "Legend" or "Go Pre" printed on them.

The arena has been reconstructed specially for the event, including the addition of Hayward Field Tower, the hallmark of which is a graphic depicting Prefontaine. Expect plenty more refences to Prefontaine and his legacy during the World Championships, scheduled to take place between July 15 and 24.

Much of the Prefontaine myth stems from the 5,000m at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, a race he did not win or even finish in the top three. Prefontaine led with 150m remaining but was passed by Finland’s Lasse Virén, whose victory made him the first runner since Emil Zátopek 20 years earlier to complete the Olympic 5,000m/10,000m double, Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi and Britain’s Ian Stewart.

Prefontaine finished fourth, but whenever his legacy is discussed in the US, it is as if he was the winner. "In the end, Pre didn’t medal, but at 21 years old he got 4th in the world and left with the knowledge that he was the only one with the strength, tenacity, and the guts to make that race reach its potential," one report at the time claimed.

Notorious for giving all-out effort from start to finish, Prefontaine despised tactical running and attracted a cult-like following by publicly proclaiming his uncompromising vision of racing. Munich 1972 summed up that philosophy perfectly.

"The best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die," he once declared. "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it."

Most US distance running fans, it seems, enjoy talking more about Prefontaine’s race at Munich 1972 rather than those of David Wottle and Frank Shorter, two Americans who did win gold medals at those Olympics, in the 800m and marathon, respectively.

Steve Prefontaine is remembered most for a race he did not win - the 5,000m at the 1972 Olympics in Munich where he finished fourth after leading until the final stages ©Getty Images
Steve Prefontaine is remembered most for a race he did not win - the 5,000m at the 1972 Olympics in Munich where he finished fourth after leading until the final stages ©Getty Images

Such is Prefontaine’s legend that he has had not one, but two, movies made about him, both released within a year of each other in 1997 and 1998.

Prefontaine, made by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, sees the runner played by Jared Leto and also features the story of Pre’s legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, who manufactures running shoes in his garage using his wife’s waffle iron to mould the rubber treads. Bowerman goes on to co-found Nike, whose shoes Prefontaine wears as he tears up the record books.

Without Limits was directed by Tom Cruise and also follows the relationship between Prefontaine and Bowerman, Billy Crudup stars as Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland plays Bowerman.

There have also two documentary programmes made about Prefontaine - Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story and Pre’s People, both setting out to try to tell the context in which Pre’s heroic and tragic story was set.

It has been claimed that Nike built the company out of the legend of Prefontaine, and the giant corporation has certainly done plenty to massage his legacy, including naming one of its corporate buildings in his honour.

Pre became the second sportsman to endorse and wear Nikes once the amateur rules that he so rallied against during his athletics career were changed (Romanian tennis player Ilie Năstase was the first in 1972, in case you are wondering). With his first endorsement cheque, Pre bought an MG convertible sports car. Two years later, at the peak of his abilities and fame, he drove the MG home after a party, hit a boulder and flipped the car. It landed on Prefontaine, killing him.

Shorter once told the story of how when he was out running near his Colorado home with Prefontaine after winning Olympic gold medal at Munich 1972, someone shouted, "Hey, isn’t that Steve Prefontaine?" Shorter recognised then, "Even at home where I’m not known, he is."

This week marked the 47th anniversary of Steve Prefontaine's death in a car crash and the shrine erected at the scene is regularly visited by fans ©Twitter
This week marked the 47th anniversary of Steve Prefontaine's death in a car crash and the shrine erected at the scene is regularly visited by fans ©Twitter

Pre’s final event was at Hayward Field, where he beat Shorter in a 5,000m race, his 25th consecutive victory in a race over the mile distance. After the event, Pre celebrated with family and friends and then dropped off Shorter at his home in Eugene.

It was shortly thereafter in the early morning of May 30 that Pre crashed and died. As is usual with any significant Prefontaine anniversary, social media was flooded this week with fans paying tribute and sharing their memories of him. In many cases, those posting were too young to have been born when he died, let alone see him compete.

Even today, 47 years after that accident, the crash scene remains a shrine to runners. They have left behind trainers, race bibs, medals and messages to honour their hero at "Pre’s Rock".

It is widely assumed in America that if that crash had not killed Pre, then he would have gone to the Olympics in Montreal the following year and won the 5,000m gold medal they think he deserved at Munich.

The US did finally get a runner on the Olympic medal podium in the 5,000m at Tokyo 2020 when Paul Chelimo, a naturalised Kenya, won the bronze medal. Such is the strength of the Pre legend, though, that it would not matter if he had won gold, he would never have surpassed him in the hearts of the American running community.