Steve Prefontaine, Long-Running Legend: Coming to a Theater Near You
Who was Steve Prefontaine, and what was the special magic he possessed that more than 20 years after his death, he is still larger than life; so much so that not one, but two full length feature films will be released in 1997 depicting his life?
Posted Tuesday, 21 January, 1997
Who was Steve Prefontaine, and what was the special magic he possessed that more than 20 years after his death, he is still larger than life; so much so that not one, but two full length feature films will be released in 1997 depicting his life? It seems that question will be answered on the silver screen for those who are seeking an answer. This Friday, January 24, the Disney film "Prefontaine "
will make its debut at theaters nationwide. In the strange world that is entertainment, a Warner Brothers film "Pre"
will be released this fall. In anticipation of these films, let's have a look back at the life and legend of Steve Prefontaine.
Born on January 25, 1951, Steve Prefontaine was raised in Coos Bay, a hard scrabble coastal town in Oregon. He set records at Marshfield High School, and was destined to run at Oregon University under the tutelage of the legendary Bill Bowerman and his assistant Bill Dellinger. Prefontaine was the first athlete to win four consecutive NCAA titles in the same event, 5000 meters. Pre's legend was formed at Oregon, where thousands of spectators known as "Pre's People " turned up regularly for meets, chanting "Pre, Pre, Pre," as he warmed up and competed. Victory was a foregone conclusion - Pre never lost a meet at Hayward field.
Prefontaine was not only known within running circles. Track and field still held a high profile on the American sports horizon in the early 1970s. Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, and Steve Prefontaine were all household names among sports fans. Pre was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman at Oregon, with the headline "America's Distance Running Prodigy " - Steve Prefontaine." Dellinger was man not easily moved, but Pre was a different story. He told Sports Illustrated in 1970 "The kid is just plain amazing. Usually it takes guys in our event ten or twelve years to build confidence in themselves, the confidence you need to win. Here's a young man who has the right attitude naturally. He wouldn't be afraid to stand on the line against anybody in the world in the three mile. If the competition is tough or the wind is blowing like crazy or if it's awfully hot, hell that's not going to stop him. There is nothing in running he doesn't believe he can't do." These comments by Dellinger were about Pre as an 18 year old Freshman at Oregon.
The national record holder at 5000 meters, Steve Prefontaine was driven to succeed at the highest level. His trademark was burning intensity and a stubborn never say die attitude. Running was no joke to Steve Prefontaine. He was willing to suffer any amount of pain in order to win a race, and his training was a reflection of that attitude. A the age of 21, Pre was given little chance to win a medal at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. No one could convince him this was the case however, and he led the 5000 meter final for much of the race before being out kicked by more experienced European competition. He hung on for fourth place and vowed to come back to win the gold medal he believed was his destiny in 1976 in Montreal. Fate intervened with this plan however, as on May 29, 1975, he died in a single car accident, when his MG convertible overturned and suffocated him. Pre was not only ahead of his time in his running prowess, he was outspoken in protecting the rights of amateur athletes, railing against the AAU, the predecessor to USATF. He refused an offer of $20,000 to join the fledgling Pro track circuit, to remain an amateur and eligible to compete against the world's best. Hypocrisy was loathsome to Prefontaine. There was only one way to run: all out every time against the best runners in the world.
At the time of his death, many believed that Pre would become the greatest distance runner in the history of the USA. That was saying something, as he was fulfilling that dream after Frank Shorter won the marathon gold medal in Munich, setting off a running boom in the country that continues today. Would Pre have become what many felt was his destiny? It's interesting to speculate. He held seven American records at distances ranging from 2000 to 10,000 meters, and ran times that would still be considered spectacular more than two decades later, despite all of the advances in technology and physiology that have occurred in that time. Chances are that if he had remained healthy, Pre would have gone on to win a medal of some kind at Montreal, at the age of 26. He would have missed on the boycotted Games in Moscow, 1980, but still would have been only 34 for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Pre had it all - the speed, the desire, and most of all the heart, to be champion for the ages. Who knows, he may have been a terrific marathoner, battling it out with Alberto Salazar, who followed in his footsteps at Oregon University.
Although there has never been another athlete quite like Pre, and most likely will never be one, there is an American who has matched his accomplishments on the track. Like Prefontaine did at Oregon, Bob Kennedy won the NCAA cross country title as a Freshman at Indiana. Since that time, Kennedy has progressed to win dozens of collegiate and national championships at the middle distance track events from 1500 to 5000 meters. Kennedy finished sixth in the 5000 final at Atlanta, two places back of Prefontaine's fourth in Munich. Kennedy has become the first American to break 13 minutes for 5000 meters, more than 20 seconds better than Pre's 5000 meter best of 13:21:87, an American record at the time. Kennedy has much more competition than Pre did, as in each major championship he has a passel of African speedsters to contend with, a phenomenon still in its infancy in the early 70s. Although Kennedy lacks Prefontaine's charisma, his future in track may provide a glimpse as to what Pre was capable of achieving.
Like a rock star's flame snuffed out early, Prefontaine's mystique has grown in part because we never got the chance to see him grow old. Those who knew Pre were mesmerized by his charismatic nature. His passion for running and life was infectious. Dellinger said "That man has something no runner in my time had. We used to warm up behind the stands, out of sight. We would never have considered taking a victory lap. But Pre...he's almost like a movie star in his relationship with the crowd. He thrives on it. " Prophetic words indeed - Pre is indeed becoming a movie star, albeit 21 years posthumously. Hollywood does not normally make movies about distance runners. So how is it that not one, but two feature films about Prefontaine will appear in 1997?
Like many seemingly sudden developments, this one was very slow in the making. The idea for a feature film about Prefontaine had been bandied about for many years. In 1994, producer Jon Lutz bought the rights to Prefontaine's story from his family, and produced a documentary "Fire on the Track" that aired on CBS on the 20th anniversary of Pre's death in 1975. Lutz and his partner sold the idea to Walt Disney Studios, and the project was underway.
Meanwhile, Kenny Moore, a fellow University of Oregon runner of Pre's and a 1972 Olympian at the marathon, was writing a proposal of his own. Moore had acted in the 1982 film "Personal Best," under the direction of Robert Towne. A professional journalist, Moore had written an entire screenplay for the film. Tom Cruise was initially offered the role of Pre by Towne, but the Disney folks thought Cruise was a bad fit for the role. Negotiations stalled, and Lutz signed on with Disney. Although Cruise passed on the role, Moore signed with Warner Brothers and the race was on.
Although Disney has exclusivity with Prefontaine's family and also is getting a jump with an earlier release date, the Warner Brothers project is not without its merits. Their budget of more than 25 million dollars is nearly three times the size of Disney's. In addition, the legendary Bowerman, who was Pre's mentor, is firmly in the WB camp. Having the Oregon track community at their disposal, it would seem that Towne and Moore would be able to offer more depth and insight into Prefontaine's life. The Disney group enlisted Goeff Hollister however, a friend and advisor to Prefontaine, as well his roommate at Oregon Pat Tyson. The Disney film is directed by Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the pair who created "Hoop Dreams," a critically acclaimed documentary about the lives of two high school basketball players.
The Disney production opens this Friday in theaters nationwide, while the Warner Brothers film will be along later in the year. That may be bad news for the production companies and their respective budgets, but for true running fans, it is an unprecedented opportunity to get glimpse into the life and legend of perhaps America's finest distance runner, and to find out what he was - and what he might have been.