When athletes spoke their minds (2)

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Thanks again to Jules Boycoff, for sparking off my interest the complex, ambiguous figure of Steve Prefontaine, a name unknown to me as recently as a month ago.

After reading Prefontaine’s attacks on the stupidity of the US athletics federation and of the patriotism behind which it sheltered, I recently started watching “Fire on the Track”, a documentary which tells Prefontaine’s story from his emergence as a track athlete through to the 5,000 metres at the 1972 Olympics, at which Prefontaine attacked and attacked, trying quite suicidally to break the sprint finish of the eventual winner Lasse Virén.

One thing I enjoy about the film is its focus on college athletics in Oregon. In sport the regional, rather than the national, is so often the level where there is the most intimate relationship between a star performer and her audience. (Think CLR James, Learie Constantine and Nelson). “Pre” starred on an Oregon stage which had witnessed international stars and world record holders; people took to him in vast numbers. They did so in part because of his determination to run from the front, a signature theme which gave him charisma as a runner.

My favourite line in the film is Prefontaine’s refusal to run on the professional track circuit: “I run best when I am running free”.

Many of the people in his audience were themselves amateur runners, encouraged into the sport by the local emergence of the Nike “joggers'” shoe, pioneered by Pre’s own coach Bill Bowerman.

Pre to his great credit seems to have been engaged in a constant love-hate generational battle with Bowerman, pre-empting the bigger conflict with the entire US athletics establishment which is the context to Pre’s attacks on “the old red, white and blue and all that bull”.

Yet the limits to Pre’s radicalism are also apparent both in his conflict with Bowerman and with US athletics. He was never William Kunstler, Pre fought with Bowerman, but his objective was to control the relationship with his coach, not to end it.

When I watch the footage of Prefontaine’s defeat at the 1972 Olympics, I see his legs moving faster and faster over the last 600 metres, so that he “ought” to be quicker than Virén, but (like Ovett in the 1500 metres final 8 years later) he never is. I will him on, but he never wins.

The image at the top of this post is the first of five sections of “Fire on the Track”, all of which have been posted on Youtube.

The second half of the film gives a sense of how Prefontaine responded to defeat, which was to go back to his Oregon base, deepening his relationship with athletics fans. During this period, he was clearly desperately poor.  Hence the edge of his attacks on US athletics.

He also took a job with Nike, become its public face, and driving its expansion towards becoming the behemoth we all know. In this part of his life, he was unforgivably the perfect fit, his spats with the Olympic authorities giving Nike the vague radical veneer that it was able to claim again later from Joschka Fischer in 1985, Magic Johnson, etc.

This is one of the unacknowledged moments in running history: the point at which millions of people were caught up in a sporting boom which was based on around a device which made people dramatically more likely to be injured, and ultimately slowed them down as they ran.

You won’t find out about Nike’s malign history in Fire on the Track, but it is a major theme of two books which I’ve discussed before on this blog, Running with the Kenyans and Running Wild.

I forgive him arbitrarily, but essentially on the basis that the shoes in which he was running were as light as they could be made. I doubt anyone properly explained to him the physical basis of Nike’s success.

Ultimately, what I admire is Pre’s running: every running career has a touch of Prefontaine’s about it; but few make it onto the screen. It is the typicality that I enjoy, the sense of watching a screen like a mirror reflecting my own and my friend’s lives (a bit faster, better photographed) staring back at me.

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