Road To The Olympic Games

Analysis

The lasting legend of running icon Steve Prefontaine

To this day, American running legend Steve Prefontaine is revered for his all-out effort style from start to finish, a reputation that earned him a cult-like following in the 1970s. He also earned respect after fighting for athletes' right to a fair share of revenues generated from their performances.

‘'The best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die,' he once declared

American Steve Prefontaine’s influence on athletics stretched beyond the track. (Associated Press)

Canada's distance man on the track, Mohammed Ahmed, is getting ready to run at the only Diamond League stop in North America - the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore.

Having just completed a high-altitude workout in California, the 27-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont., is more than eager to talk about the historic meet's allure.

"They love their track and field there," Ahmed enthuses over the phone. "It resonates with the people there.  Any kind of meet is packed at Hayward Field. It's an intimate place, a knowledgeable and loud crowd."

Olympic greatness was predicted for Prefontaine, right, before his untimely death in 1975. (Associated Press)

Held since 1973, this prestigious athletics gathering on the campus of the University of Oregon also carries the name of the late Steve Prefontaine, an American collegiate runner who never won an Olympic or world championship medal, but who left an indelible mark on his sport before dying in a car crash at age 24 while nearing the zenith of his career.

Prefontaine held American records in seven different distance events on the track, and famously finished a desperate fourth in the 5000 metres at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. 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.

"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."

Prefontaine, history shows, was virtually unbeatable on the Hayward Field track over the course of his NCAA career at Oregon. He lost only three races there, all in the mile. When he died, the track meet was renamed the Prefontaine Classic in his memory.

"In high schools kids are still talking about him," Ahmed reckons. "When I was in high school, the track spikes I wore had Prefontaine's face tattooed on the insoles. People were quoting him all the time. I remember writing those things down and living by those words. His quotes have to do with laying it all on the line and that sentiment still works to this day."

Canada's Mohammed Ahmed, who won a silver medal in the men's 10,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games, loved the way Prefontaine attacked the track. (Dita Alangkara/Associated Press)

Prefontaine revered

More than one movie has been made about Prefontaine and his relationship with pioneering Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. The strong-willed Prefontaine was also revered for taking on the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), over athletes' rights and track stars fighting for their fair share of revenues generated from their performances.

There's also the intriguing story of Bowerman developing the first homemade waffle-soled runner for Prefontaine while sowing the seeds of the Nike sportswear empire.

Prefontaine, right, fought for an athlete’s right to receive fair pay. (Associated Press)

"They built the Nike shoe company out of the legend of Steve Prefontaine," says Canadian Olympic sprinter Doug Clement, who ran at Oregon for Bowerman in the 1950's.

"Here was this young guy who was extremely bold. He had this idea that it was all in his mind and all he had to do was be strong and be willing to suffer. He had the aura of a superhero that died young and under tragic circumstances."

The site of the Prefontaine Classic will soon undergo a transformation in order to be ready for the 2021 IAAF world athletics championships.  The iconic wooden grandstands will be torn down and replaced with a space-age, state-of-the-art facility, complete with a transparent roof and pedestrian mall. At a cost of $200 million US, the makeover is being led by Phil Knight, who co-founded Nike with Bowerman.

Some oppose the effort at modernization, while others like Doug Clement, who makes a habit of returning to his track alma mater, understand that the mystique goes far beyond the physical structure.

"Track and field is not what it used to be. But in Eugene, it's an important thing," he says. "It's nice to know there is some controversy when it comes to tinkering with history."

Lights up track 

Clement, who vividly recalls seeing Prefontaine light up the track at Hayward Field and hosting him at a meet in Vancouver a week before his death in 1975, knows that the aura of this landmark runner is still very strong.

"He was the little guy who took on the system," Clement recalls. "The buzz he created when running in that place was electric. It was a Wayne Gretzky-like thing. It was the same as LeBron James. It was that kind of dominance."

The mythology attached to the Prefontaine Classic is not lost on Ahmed as he prepares for the two-mile race in Eugene (Friday night at 11:05 p.m.) to kick start his season. 

Ahmed, who narrowly missed a medal in the 5000 by finishing fourth at the Rio Olympics in 2016, recently won two silver medals in the 5000 and 10000 at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.  Many of his personal best times have come at Hayward Field in Eugene.

"It's like witnessing the history of track and field and seeing the way things should be done," he muses. "The competition is always great at Hayward Field and knowing you have to go for it  — to lay it all out there."

The Canadian long-distance runner hears the murmurs and whispers about how skinny he looks and his weight. But he doesn’t let that affect his running. Ahmed has come to the realization that his normal weight is were he should be, no matter what people say. 1:53

Even though Prefontaine died nearly two decades before he was born and he never saw him race, Ahmed knows the value of a legacy that endures to this day.

"It's essential to have someone and something to aspire to," he concludes. "Legends give you a sense of possibility."

About the Author

Scott Russell

Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House."

Broadcast Partners

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.