Saturday, May 30, will mark 40 years since Steve Prefontaine died in a car accident.
Though his American runner’s records, of which there were many, have been broken and better a few times over, many still consider him one the best distance runners ever and wonder what his career may have grown into had it not been cut short at the age of 24.
Pre’s passing is still a touchy subject four decades later in Eugene, Ore., where he died. The runner was killed when he became trapped under his flipped MG convertible on Skyline Boulevard. Only 24 at the time, he was already a star of American distance running, setting national records from 2,000m to 10,000m. He never lost a collegiate race over 5,000m or 10,000m, though winning alone wasn’t what made him such a popular figure.
Prefontaine, in his senior year at the University of Oregon, became very outspoken against Amateur Athletic Union’s rules banning athletes from accepting prize money and appearance fees. That, paired with his aggressive front running, made the young distance runner a local star and explains why two Hollywood movies about his life would later be made.
The day before he died, Prefontaine was in a 5,000m race at Hayward Field. Afterwards, he attended an after party with other athletes. He drove Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion, to a friend’s where the visiting athlete would stay the night. Not long after, driving home, he drove his car across the oncoming lane of Skyline Boulevard and into a rock escarpment, flipping his car. His blood alcohol level would later be measured at 0.16, though that is disputed, one of a few points of contention surrounding his death.
Those who lived in the area would tell police they heard two cars, possibly racing, before the crash. The other car was another MG, driven by Karl Bylund. Bylund told police he had come across Prefontaine’s flipped car and was rushing home to call the police.
Since his death, two movies have been made about his life, Prefontaine in 1997 and Without Limits 1998. He’s an icon in the history of Nike, a company he was involved with from very early on, and at the University of Oregon. Each year, the Prefontaine Classic, one of the top track and field meets in the world, is held at Hayward Field, and many young distance runners look up to him.