More than four decades after his death, the promise of Steve Prefontaine and Bowerman’s Men (and Women) of Oregon was fulfilled in Rio.
As long as an Olympic torch remains lit somewhere, Steve Prefontaine will live on as the Games’ most famous fourth-place finisher.
Just 21, Prefontaine set the American record in the 5000 meters at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene. Though not fully developed as a runner, Pre, heading into the ‘72 Games in Munich, already held the American record in seven different distance track events from the 2,000 meters to the 10,000 meters.
During the 5,000-meter final, Pre — frustrated with the slow pace of the race — took the lead in the last mile and started to kick almost immediately. But the strategy which served him well against collegiate competition did not pay off on the world stage. With just 200 meters to go, was passed by Lasse Virén, Mohammad Gammoudi and nipped at the end by Britain’s Ian Stewart.
But Pre kept going. Two years later, he, along with Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, became the reason why everyone started to wear running shorts outside their sweats along with headbands for the next decade.
Then on the night of May 29, 1975 — the very evening after he won a 5,000-meter during a NCAA Prep/Club meet at Hayward Field, Prefontaine was driving on Skyline Boulevard, east of the University of Oregon campus near Hendricks Park. His orange 1973 MGB convertible swerved into a small rock wall and flipped and trapped Prefontaine underneath
A nearby resident found Prefontaine flat on his back, still alive but pinned beneath the wreckage. By the time medics arrived, he was pronounced dead. He was 24.
Pre never did get to race in his prime. If math is to be believed, men peak in endurance events around age 31, which means Pre had two, maybe three more shots at claiming the title of the world’s greatest distance runner.
Instead, Shorter, though never the legend, would claim the hardware for that generation. Shorter was the U.S. Olympic Trials champion in both the 10,000-meter run and the marathon in both 1972 and 1976 and he won the gold medal in the marathon final in 1972 and the silver in 1976.
And though Prefontaine’s image looms large over the University of Oregon campus and his shadow chases runners everywhere (go check out the photos of him hanging in Anchorage’s Skinny Raven running store next time you’re up that way), it is Oregon’s distance athletes that have labored in the 40-plus years to emerge as great.
This Olympics, it happened.
Thirty-year-old Galen Rupp, who took home a silver in the 10,000 during the London Games, finished 5th in Rio as he watched training partner Mo Farah kick in for gold. But on the last day of competition in Rio, Rupp did the unthinkable: He broke the stranglehold of Ethiopians and Kenyans and finished third in the marathon.
…On just his second attempt — ever — at that distance.
Rupp ran a personal-best 2 hours 10 minutes 5 seconds, finishing 1 minute 21 seconds behind Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya and only 11 seconds behind Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia.
Eugene resident by way of Maryland, Matthew Centrowitz ended the United States’ gold medal drought in the 1500 meters. The US hadn’t won the event since 1908 and Centrowitz’s convincing kick took gold and left Algeria Taoufik Makhloufi in his wake for silver, while Nick Willis of New Zealand smiled big enough for all Kiwis crossing third for bronze.
“Doing my victory lap I literally kept screaming to everyone I know, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Centrowitz said, noting he felt his legs turn to Jell-o in the last 20 meters but continued to churn for his life to lead a fast finish. His time, three minutes and 50 seconds, the slowest winning time in more than twenty years.
In total, Oregon runners contributed mightily to the U.S. team total of 32 medals in track and field, three more than in London and the most medals U.S. track and field has taken home in a non-boycotted games since 1956.
With 18 current and former Ducks competing in track and field, Oregon alone featured more Olympic athletes than 113 countries highlighted by decathlete Ashton Eaton became the world’s best athlete for the second Games in a row — joining American Bob Mathias and Brit Daley Thompson to win a pair.
Thanks to the Nike Oregon Project, Oregon Track Club Elite and the Nike Bowerman Track Club — overall, there were 41 track and field Olympians entered in 23 events and representing 10 different countries who either call Oregon home or who are current or former Ducks.
At a time when running has lost some of its purity to corporations, enhanced performances and commerce, it is good to know there is still some of that Perfontaine spirit instilled in the Men (and Women) of Oregon.
Just ask Rupp, who pointed to the sky and made an ‘O’ with his hands upon crossing the finish at Rio. Surely, someone up there was smiling behind his ‘stache, bronze in hand at last.