The Prefontaine Classic gets underway tomorrow in Eugene, Oregon.
Considered the nation’s premier track and field meet, the Prefontaine Classic is held at venerable Hayward Field, the most famous track and field stadium in North America. The two-day event, unparalleled in the United States, brings out the best of the best. Athletes must be ranked in the top 50 in the world in their respective events to be eligible to compete.
The “Pre” Classic draws sellout crowds and showcases record-setting performances. Launched in 1973 to raise funds to help replace the deteriorating wooden west grandstand, the event was originally called the Hayward Restoration Meet. It became the Bowerman Classic in 1975 to honor longtime Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman.
A native son of Oregon, Steven Roland Prefontaine was born in the coastal logging town of Coos Bay in 1951. A prep sensation, Prefontaine went undefeated in both cross country and track as a high school upperclassman. In his senior year at Marshfield High, he set a national two-mile record.
The highly sought-after Prefontaine turned away over 40 scholarship offers to run for Bowerman at Oregon. The dashing teenager became a sensation. At 18, he graced the cover of Track & Field News. The following year, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Immensely talented and driven, Pre excelled at multiple distances. He once held the American record at seven different events from 2.000 to 10,000 meters. Prefontaine captured three NCAA cross country titles and four collegiate track titles. In 1973, he became the first athlete to win four NCAA track titles in the same event — the 5,000 meters.
In four years at Oregon, Pre never lost an NCAA race at three miles, 5,000 meters, six miles or 10,000 meters. Sporting a stylish mustache and long flowing locks, Prefontaine helped inspire the running boom of the 1970s. In 1972, he set the American record for 5,000 meters at the Olympic Trials, but was out-kicked in the Olympic final to narrowly miss a bronze medal in Munich.
A famous front-runner, Prefontaine went out fast and stayed there. “No one will ever win a 5,000 meter by running an easy two miles,” said Pre. “Not against me.”
At the inaugural Restoration Meet in 1973, Pre ran his personal best in the mile – the featured event at the meet. He ended up second, as Dave Wottle ran 3:53.3 to Pre’s 3:54.6. Prefontaine stole the show the following year, setting a new American record in the three-mile event.
In 1975, at 24, Pre lost his life in a car accident. Just hours after winning the 5,000 meters in an NCAA prep meet, he was driving home from a party. Prefontaine’ 1973 MGB convertible swerved into a rock wall – later dubbed Pre’s Rock – and flipped, trapping him beneath it. The Eugene Register-Guard called his death the “end of an era.”
The summer after Prefontaine’s death, the University of Oregon renamed the Restoration Meet the Prefontaine Classic. Sponsored by Nike since 1978, the annual event helps to preserve his memory.
The Pre Classic’s signature event is the Bowerman Mile. The greatest footrace in the U.S., the Bowerman Mile – held in honor of the event’s namesake – is the final event of the meet. No other American meet has seen as many sub-four-minute performances. Since its inception, over 375 athletes have run under four minutes in the Bowerman. Past male winners include Steve Scott, Marty Liquori, and Sydney Maree. At the 2001 event, Alan Webb ran 3:53.43 in the mile to break Jim Ryun’s national high school record that had stood for 36 years.
Many of the greatest names in track and field history have competed at the Pre Classic. In 1988, Mary Slaney set the women’s meet record in the mile, a mark that still stands. Michael Johnson holds the 400m record, Justin Gatlin the 200m mark and Mo Farah owns the 5,000 meter record. Other Pre Classic winners include Carl Lewis, Frank Shorter, Sergey Bubka and Mike Powell.
The most dominant athlete ever to compete in the Pre Classic is Maria Mutola, of Mozambique. Between 1993 and 2008, Mutola won 16 consecutive 800 meter races at the Pre.
Next Wednesday marks the 43rd anniversary of Steve Prefontaine’s passing. More than four decades after his death, Pre remains a track and field icon.