Track and Field

Legacy of running legend Steve Prefontaine a testament to fleeting potential of youth

American running legend Steve Prefontaine died in a car crash in 1975 at the Willamette Valley in Eugene, Ore., while preparing for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Decades later, the place is adorned by admirers from all over the world and a soulful experience.

'Pre's Rock', site of American runner's death in 1975, a place for quiet contemplation

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

The feeling you get while pausing at a narrow pass on a winding road overlooking the Willamette Valley on a sweltering day in Eugene, Ore., is one of quiet contemplation.

A visit to "Pre's Rock" is, for some of us who spent their teenaged years in the 1970's, like a pilgrimage to a magical place.

This is where American running legend Steve Prefontaine died in a car crash in 1975. He was, at the time of his death, preparing for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

"Pre," as he was known by track fans who lionized him, was only 24 years old and held every American record between the 2,000 and 10,000 metres. He was a local kid from a working-class family in nearby Coos Bay, Ore., who revolutionized athletics and captured the imagination of generations of runners who followed him.

"Steve Prefontaine was an idol of mine when I was growing up," offered Jerry Kooymans of Bracebridge, Ont., one of a large group of people we encountered who had been drawn to this modest memorial.

"I had his poster on the wall of my dorm room at Princeton University and every day when I went out to run, I'd look at that poster and he just inspired me so much. I wrote in my high school yearbook that I wanted to meet Steve Prefontaine in person someday. Hopefully it would be on the starting line at the Olympics in Montreal. It never came to be unfortunately."

"Pre's Rock" is adorned with running shoes, race numbers, singlets, and medals that folks from all over the world have left in admiration of what Prefontaine meant to them personally. They wear t-shirts that bear his likeness and get their pictures taken kneeling beside the plaque embossed with the image of the determined and striking athlete who, over time, has become a cult hero.

It is a soulful experience.

Pre's Rock is regularly adorned with items from international admirers of the runner's influence. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

"The spirit of Prefontaine is all over the world, especially in Germany. It is a special moment for me to be here to be thinking about him," said an emotional Ewald Walker, a German sports journalist from Stuttgart.

Walker had seen the 21-year-old Prefontaine run in the 5,000m final at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and in dramatic fashion almost win against much more experienced rivals.

"The tactics of Steve to go to the front of the race again and again — it was a shame that in the last 100 metres Lasse Viren and two other guys passed him and he couldn't get a medal."

That race in 1972, Prefontaine's first and only Olympic appearance, distilled his style. He was a front runner who gave his all and ran flat-out in every event. He was known to make pronouncements that reflected his disdain for tactics and planning while competing.

"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift," has become Prefontaine's enduring credo which has captured the imagination of countless aspiring champions.

"Somebody may beat me but they are going to have to bleed to do it," encapsulated "Pre's" unwavering belief in all-out effort.

WATCH | Remembering Steve Prefontaine's legacy:

RTTOG: Feature on legendary American distance runner Steve Prefontaine

6 years ago
Duration 1:12
RTTOG: Feature on legendary American distance runner Steve Prefontaine

The 5,000m final in Munich featured an unprecedented field. Included were Lasse Viren of Finland who had won Munich gold in the 10,000m and was the world-record holder. The reigning Olympic champion was the graceful 33-year-old Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia. Emiel Puttemans of Belgium would go on to break the 5,000m world record, and Ian Stewart of Great Britain was the reigning European and Commonwealth Games champion.

At 21, Prefontaine was the youngest competitor who lined up. But he was undaunted, and with 1,500 metres to go he grew tired of the pedestrian pace and ran like a madman the rest of the way in a desperate effort to get to the finish line first.

A man of incredible self-belief

"The wonderful thing about Prefontaine was that he dismissed their reputations. He had this incredible belief in himself," reckoned three-time Olympian David Moorcroft who, as a 19-year-old, watched that race and would go on to be the 5000m world record holder and Commonwealth Games champion.

"It gives me a tingle down my spine. I was just starting university. That 5,000m final makes me think of Eugene and inspiration and showbiz and Hollywood and an amazing talent."

As the race drew to a close Prefontaine surged to the lead, again and again, and never gave in to the formidable task at hand. He ran full speed until he had nothing left. In the end, Viren of Finland took the gold medal with Gammoudi not far behind. Prefontaine absolutely ran out of gas in the last few metres and was caught from behind by a hard charging Ian Stewart for the bronze medal.

It may very well have been the most memorable fourth-place finish in the history of distance running.

"He made a few tactical errors and Viren and Gammoudi were the more clever ones," Moorcroft estimated.

"But you could never take away that wonderful aggression and belief that 'Pre' had. For me it was compelling watching it. It wasn't just a great race. It was one of those moments where you thought, 'I just want to be there. I want to do that. I want to be a part of that.' It was absolutely inspirational."

Prefontaine's life has been made into more than one Hollywood motion picture. His story has been told over and over again and so many of the people who are volunteering at Hayward Field at these world championships have a recollection of his exploits while he competed before the old East Grandstand at the University of Oregon. 

They smile when they reflect on his audacity and the flowing locks of his hair as he defiantly broke the tape at the end of a successful race.

"He was part of the revolution in the United States that had people taking to running. People were inspired to run because of him."​​​​​- Three-time Olympian Dave Moorcroft on Prefontaine's legacy

There is a statue of "Pre" outside the Nike store in downtown Eugene that is surrounded by luscious flowers and many come to admire it. They pay homage to the ethereal presence of someone who perished before his vast potential could be realized.

Not far from the memorial, there are running trails that bear Prefontaine's name and people from all over the planet flock here to follow in his footsteps. 

"He was part of the revolution in the United States that had people taking to running. People were inspired to run because of him," Moorcroft figured.

"I'm pretty sure that he would have broken world records and I'm fairly sure he would have gone on to get Olympic medals, but we'll never know. Maybe in a weird kind of way it's what we don't know that makes his story more compelling."

What could have been

As the crowd gathered at the threshold of "Pre's Rock," a sense of wonder seemed to pervade the mood of everyone there regardless of age.

How great could "Pre" have been had he lived to race at the Olympics again?

"It's part of the lore of distance running," David Moorcroft concluded with a knowing smile.

"He was such a hero and people are so captivated by him. Legends are created in many different ways. For Steve Prefontaine only part of the story was his race in Munich. It's everything else wrapped around it that makes it so special."

I had made it a point to visit "Pre's Rock" while at these World Championships and as I walked away, I was aware that I had been in the presence of something enduring and powerful.

It seems to me that Steve Prefontaine's lasting legacy is a testament to the fleeting potential of youth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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."

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