This is the Pre column that Elliott Denman did prior to the 2023 Nike Prefontaine Classic, the Diamond League championships for 2023.
Pre-pre column 2023..
By ELLIOTT DENMAN
I’ll remember the night of May 30, 1975, as clearly as I can September 11, 2023, which is this day I’m seated at my computer, commissioned to write a “pre-Pre story” and trying put all my recollections – emotions, too – in reasonably readable journalistic form.
But that is a tough assignment because “The Pre Story” – a look back at the so-suddenly-saddeningly-foreshortened life of Steve Roland Prefontaine – is so replete with the personalized remembrances of a man – me – trying to write a coulda-woulda-shoulda look-back at a young athlete who maybe-just-maybe had the ability to do it better and faster and more flamboyantly than anyone whoever graced our favorite sport.
But I’ll dig down and push forward and try to get this right – yes, as “Pre” might have dug down and pushed forward to get it all right, too.
That night – May 30, 1975 – saw me “in the slot” of the sports desk of the Asbury Park Press – a once purely locally-focused newspaper in Central New Jersey – that had now seen the light that it had to deliver the news of events of an area well beyond its Matawan-to-Manahawkin, Long Branch-to-Toms River roots, if it was to have relevance to an increasingly wider audience now making this vicinity one of the fastest growing in the nation.
And it was the job of that “slot man” to determine which were the biggest stories of the day and which were not.
There was no doubt in my mind that the horrific events in Eugene, Oregon that fateful Thursday night, May 29, 1975, and earliest Friday, May 30, deserved full-frontal Sports Page One prominence.
So a large photo of “Pre” was selected, from the many now spewing from Associated Press tele-machines, for the top of the page, to be enclosed in a square band of mourner’s black, with the story, headlined “Olympian Loss,” positioned immediately below.
That page layout was – totally – the call of the “slot man” and I had no doubts it was the right one.
Until the following day, when some top brass – the names on the newspaper’s masthead – asked a few questions.
“Who is this guy Prefontaine? Does anyone round here even know who he is? Or care? And what’s this ‘Olympian Loss’ thing – all he did was place fourth in his only Olympic race three years ago?
With difficulty – and patience – I pleaded my case.
But I was never sure I’d won that case, either. The verdict never came in.
And the world kept right on spinning.
The tributes to “Pre” were to come from much wider sources than the Asbury Park Press. And for years thereafter.
“For six short years, we followed you, you always grabbed the lead. And now it’s over, just like that, the hearts begin to bleed.”
Sister Neta Prefountaine reminded us that brother Steve “was a real person, and you don’t find real people in this world too often.”
“Pre’s Rock” is a memorial has been placed at the winding curve of Eugene’s Skyline Boulevard, where “Pre” – age 24 – would die when his smallish MGB convertible hit that rock and overturned. All these years alter, the circumstances have never been clear. An engraved stone memorial with a picture of Prefontaine is now there. It reads:
“Pre, for your dedication and loyalty
To your principles and beliefs…
For your love, warmth, and friendship
For your family and friends…
You are missed by so many
And you will never be forgotten”
Out in Oregon, things would never quite spin in the same orbit.
The amazingly foresightful visions of Phil Knight – with the guidance of Bill Bowerman – that this “running thing” that “Pre” had incited – would morph into the zillion-dollar, global enterprise with a role in every sport and leisure activity known to mankind – that now is Nike – would become realities.
The University of Oregon’s own track and cross country varsity teams – once the domain of “Pre” – would rise to repeat national dominance, buoyed by the support of Nike and, of course, attired top-to-bottom in Nike gear.
And Eugene would evolve into the de-facto Track and Field
Capital of America, its historic, wooden Hayward Field the site of an array of the nation’s biggest meets, to be followed by even bigger meets – i.e., the 18th World Championships of Track and Field in 2022 – at the newly reconstructed, reconfigured, glittering and golden Hayward Field on that same Agate Street location.
And that, 48-plus years after the awfulness of late-late May 1975, brings this former “slot man” to the Prefontaine Classic Meet coming to Hayward Field this weekend (Sept. 16-17) as the newly-designated conclusion of the globally-sited Wanda Diamond League series of high-stakes, hugely-competitive and TV-friendly action on the track and afield circuit.
Such luminaries as Noah Lyles, Sha’Carri Richardson, Mondo DuPlantis, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Ryan Crouser, Mutaz Essa Barhim, Karsten Warholm, Femke Bol. Valarie Allman, Yared Nuguse, Chase Ealey – and so many more – will be cavorting at Hayward this weekend. If these names – fresh from Budapest’s 19th World Championships – don’t resonate to you, welcome home from Mars.
This “Pre” Memorial had first convened on June 7, 1975, just a week after that tragedy on Skyline Boulevard. Greats of the day – in full mourning mode – were there, and greats of the days thereafter have followed in profusion ever since.
But this 2023 edition of “the Pre” may turn out to be one of the fastest-strongest-leapingest of all. Stay tuned.
We will never know what greatness Steve Prefontaine might have achieved beyond May 30, 1975. Olympic gold medals, world and American records, and more-more-more, all were within potential reach.
His was indeed an “Olympian Loss” as this once-“slot man” knew it should be headlined.
That’s “Olympian” in the classic sense – “exalted, majestic, celestial.”