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Steve Prefontaine: A Runner's Tragedy And The '70s Jogging Craze

Culture | January 25, 2021

15 Sep 1972: Steve Prefontaine of the USA in action during a track and field event at Crystal Palace in London, England. Photo by Tony Duffy /Allsport

Steve Prefontaine, a distance runner who excelled at the University of Oregon and hoped to win Olympic Gold in 1976, died in a car accident at the age of 24. Prefontaine was already one of the faces of his sport, which was becoming more and more popular with the public, and in death he joined the ranks of sporting folk heroes and legends like Ernie Davis, Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson and Drazen Petrovic. By the late '70s, jogging was a national pastime, and Prefontaine, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was part of the story of the trend, although he didn't live to see it.

Sourcd: (Outside Magazine)

Steve Prefontaine, or “Pre” as many called him, was born in Coos Bay, Oregon on January 25, 1951. From a young age, he was a determined individual with an impressive work ethic. He was always active, joining both football and basketball teams in high school, but he rarely played because he was short. He first saw track students jogging past the football field when he was in 8th grade, but at that point, didn’t pay it much attention because he thought it looked boring. Once he discovered that he was able to compete successfully in cross country running, he fell in love with the sport and joined the cross-country team. He was an okay competitor at first, but Pre was a competitor from an early age and really wanted to win. During his sophomore year, he failed to qualify for the state meet, and he then vowed to never lose another high school race. Following the advice of his coach, Walt McClure Jr., he began training in the summers, and by his junior year, he had an undefeated season and won the state title. By his senior year, he started setting records.  

Pre's College Career

The ’69 Oregon XC team. Bill Bowerman 2nd from left in top row and Pre, middle in bottom row. Source: Gary Lineburg/Trackandfieldnews)

He was recruited by 40 or so colleges, with some doing so aggressively. Prefontaine wanted to stay in state, and decided on the University of Oregon, which had recruited him, but not nearly as aggressively as the other schools. Coach Bill Bowerman wrote a letter to Pre telling him that Pre would undoubtedly become the world’s greatest runner if he decided to attend the University of Oregon; this letter helped solidify Pre’s decision to attend the school. While there, he ran under Bill Bowerman, who had founded Blue Ribbon Sports with Phil Knight; the company became Nike in 1971. Pre was definitely on the way to fulfilling Bowerman’s earlier promise, as while Pre was at the University of Oregon, he won three Division 1 NCAA Cross Country Championships as well as four straight three-mile/5000-meter titles in track. He only lost three races, all in the mile.

Pre Makes A Run For The Gold

From the Munich Olympics. Source: (Pinterest)

Prefontaine used the unconventional running strategy of taking an early lead rather than pacing himself. He also had impressive leg speed and came within 3.5 seconds of the world record for the mile in the course of his career. While still in college, he was already getting national attention, and he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 1970 at the age of 19.

In 1971, he started to prep for the Munich Olympics. During the Olympic trials, he set the American record for the 5000 meter. But he was considered the underdog going into the games. Of course, the ’72 Olympics were notable for the disruption wrought by Palestinian terrorists when they killed two athletes and took nine others hostage. Despite this, the games continued anyway, commencing a day later. In the end, though he ran hard and tried to run the last mile in under four minutes, he finished in 4th place. Lasse Viren of Finland took home gold for the race, and Pre said that he was just exhausted during the last 200 meters, when Ian Stewart from Britain overtook him, depriving him of the bronze. Pre was determined to return in four years as he was only 22 during the ’72 Olympics and he still had his final year of college to complete. 

His Struggles Caused Him To Fight For Change

Source: (Pinterest)

During his final year at Oregon, Prefontaine was unemployed and living on food stamps. His situation led to a battle with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). He questioned the AAU’s right to restrict amateur athletes from profiting from their appearances at sporting events, especially in light of the fact that these events brought in significant money while the athletes had to shoulder their own expenses. The AAU was even rescinding the athlete’s amateur status if they took any endorsements; without the amateur status, athletes were unable to compete in the Olympics. In 1978, the Amateur Athletics Act was passed, giving athletes the right to compete when and where they wanted.

Steve Prefontaine's Life After Graduation

Nike Pre Montreal design, inspired by the original shoe designed for him. Source: (Pinterest)

In 1973, Prefontaine began working with Nike and Bowerman; Nike had started to mass produce the waffle-soled shoe Pre wore. In 1974, Pre continued to set records and started to promote his own meets. Driven in part by a desire to conquer his foe, Lasse Viren, he organized a Finnish team tour to Oregon in the spring of 1975.

He Inspired In Other Ways

Memorial on the rock where his car flipped. Source: (Wikimedia)

Steve Prefontaine was not just a running sensation; he tried to make a difference in other ways as well. He spoke to teenagers about the dangers of drug abuse and STDs. He visited prison inmates to leave them with messages of hope, and he took his university teammates with him after he had already been visiting the prisoners. After a meet on May 30, 1975, he died when he lost control of his car and it flipped and crushed him. 

He Left A Legacy

Mural commemorating Steve Prefontaine. Source: (theworldlink.com)

Steve Prefontaine left quite a legacy, including two feature films: 1997’s Prefontaine, and 1998’s Without Limits. He was also a prominent part of the running boom in the 1970s. In 1968, it was considered weird to run, and the Chicago Tribune profiled “joggers,” men who ran in the morning because they were concerned that police would think they were engaged in suspicious activity. The New York Times told the story of a man who was stopped by the police in Hartford, Connecticut for “illegal use of a highway by a pedestrian.”

The Running Boom

President Jimmy Carter, who was part of the running boom. Source: (Reddit)

Bill Bowerman, who had been so influential for Pre, discovered jogging on a trip to New Zealand in 1962 and was inspired by Arthur Lydiard, who had developed a cross country running program. In 1967, Bowerman released a best-selling book, Jogging: A Physical Fitness Program for all Ages, which he wrote with Dr. W. E. Harris. He helped to show that jogging could be healthy, and it started to become more mainstream. Frank Shorter won a gold in the 1972 Olympics for the Marathon, which was the first for the U.S. since 1908, and it became apparent to many Americans that this was a sport they could participate in: it can be solitary, doesn’t require any special equipment, beyond the shoes, and does not require any skill. Elite runners like Mary Slaney also bringing attention to the sport, and in 1970, the Seattle and New York Marathons were created as well as Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race. In the late ‘70s, training programs began to surface. 

The boom was evident in the marketplace for runners. In 1967, Runner’s World Magazine only rated 16 shoes in its special shoe issue. By 1978, it rated 178. It was also evident in the increase in participants in the marathons. The first New York Marathon only had 126 starters and by 1979, the number was limited to 14,000 runners. In 1977, The Complete Book of Running was published by Jim Fixx and it touted the health benefits of running, from losing weight to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Other people found fame by running, like Mavis Hutchinson, who was 53 at the time she ran from coast to coast. The National Running Data Center in Tucson estimated that 10 million Americans were runners in the late ‘70s, and even President Jimmy Carter was jogging.  

Tags: 1970s Sports | Running | Sports | Steve Prefontaine | The Olympics

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!