Runners from America, or who have spent time there, tend to be fans of 1970s middle-distance athlete Steve Prefontaine. Here in Europe, he’s probably best known simply (and maybe unfairly) for being big in the States – like country music, Hershey’s chocolate, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and other Americana that we Euros don’t always get.
The legend of ‘Pre’ is founded on his uncompromising and single-minded attitude as much as on his running achievements. On the track, he was a ‘pure guts’ front runner who threw cautious tactics to the wind. Off the track, he confronted athletics authorities in an effort to win better conditions for the unpaid athletes who drew large paying crowds to money-making events. In both he was hugely influential.
Prefontaine’s near-mythical status today is enhanced by his death in a car accident in 1975, aged only 24. But even in his lifetime ‘Pre’ was revered by U.S. track fans.
He competed just once at the Olympics, in 1972 in Munich, where he reached the 5,000 metre final. His opponents were formidable – reigning Olympic champion Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, former European champion Ian Stewart of Great Britain, and newly-crowned Olympic 10,000 metre champion Lasse Viren of Finland.
The last four laps are in the video below, and it’s one of the most thrilling sports clips you’ll ever see. As well as being the youngest in the race, Prefontaine stands out a mile with his long hair, bushy moustache and a bizarre running vest with arm-holes that open almost to his hips. (In a neat counterpoint to Prefontaine’s facialwear, Viren has a beard with no moustache. The Finn also has some revealing kit – his shorts are eye-wateringly short.)
With four laps to go, Prefontaine hits the front and strikes for home. But Viren stays on his shoulder and at one point takes up the running, while the more experienced Gammoudi and Stewart keep in touch and bide their time. Then the last lap… attacks and counter-attacks down the back straight… a final assault off the last bend… and a twist in the tale, almost right on the line. We won’t spoil the ending for you.
As much as the exciting race, what really makes this video special is the fantastic commentary by David Coleman of the BBC. In a pre-Internet age where we first heard of overseas athletes and footballers when they rocked up to international tournaments one year in four, Coleman assumes the responsibility of introducing Prefontaine to a British audience. His lines, delivered in the dramatic and authoritative tones of a war correspondent, fizz and sing like something by Walt Whitman:
“The American in front, almost a cult in the United States, he’s a sort of athletic Beatle. There are T-shirts around, ‘Go Pre’, all round the stadium worn by American fans. The Europeans say that he hasn’t really been in a war yet, but this boy’s got utter belief in himself – and he’s inexperienced enough in many ways not to know how good the others are. Prefontaine, another athlete who can’t leave it late – a long-distance driver really, who’s got to go for home from way out.”
It’s gripping stuff, and repeat viewings don’t spoil the tension. My favourite part is with two and a half laps to go, when Coleman’s pitch perfectly captures the rising excitement: “And suddenly it’s starting to happen and runners are losing touch…”
Prefontaine’s performance and finishing position in this final still fire up Pre-fans and Pre-detractors, if Internet sites and comments on the subject are any true indication. However you feel about Prefontaine, he certainly plays his part in making this an exciting race: