Steve Prefontaine - Without Limits

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1972 Olympics


1972 Olympic Trial in Eugene, Oregon

Prefontaine won the 1972 Olympic trials in Eugene with an American record 13:22.8 ... beating a veteran George Young (2nd, 13:29.4) and Leonard Hilton (3rd, 13:40.2).  

[from Tom Jordan's book]  "At some time on Thursday, July 6, it began to take shape as America's greatest distance race of all time."  So wrote Cordner Nelson of the feeling that pervaded Eugene before the finals of the 5000 in the Olympic Trials.  The race had all of the elements:  Pre in front of his home crowd; George Young opting to test Pre for the first time; the presence of some fine distance men, including Tracy Smith, Gerry Lindgren, and Greg Fredericks.


Photo by Don Chadez

'The match between the 34-year-old Young and the 21-year-old Prefontaine caused much excitement in particular. 

"There was some sort of an effort on the part of the media to build up a 'grudge' race between the two of us," recalls Young.  "It never developed because of the mutual respect we had for each other."

Nevertheless, there was the feeling that if Pre was going to suffer his first defeat at his distance in Eugene, George would be the man to do it - he had experience, speed, and extraordinary toughness.  Pre-like toughness. 

On Sunday, July 9, 12 men toed the line for the start.  The weather was warm but not stifling.  Gerry Lindgren led past the 880 in 2:09.6, before drifting back through the pack.  Pre took over and averaged around 66 seconds a lap through 1.5 miles.  Then Pre ran laps of 64.7 and 65.1, stringing out the pack.  Only Young moved with him quickly and was close up with 3.5 laps to go.

Without Limits photo by Linda R. Chen

"Cordner Nelson called the race: 

"Now Pre began the task of breaking Young, one of the guttiest runners in track history.  Pre ran a lap in 63.4, which dropped Hilton 25 yards behind, but the veteran Young held on grimly.  With the crowd roaring, Prefontaine began a remarkable drive." 

Without Limits photo by Linda R. Chen

"A lap in 61.5 weakened Young and left Hilton 75 yards back, but Pre was only beginning.  He increased the pace and opened an 8-yard lead with a lap to go.  Young had to surrender, and Pre completed the lap in 58.7.  With Young beaten, Pre slowed in the homestretch.  Then he thought better of it and picked up for a respectable finish in 13:22.8, a time bettered only by Clarke (twice) and Dave Bedford's 13:22.2." 

Marty Liquori was there at the finish.  "The thing I remember about it was that coming off the last turn, Pre was completely dead - just wobbling up the straightaway.  He hit the inside rail and almost stumbled, and the fans were loving it, because he was completely spent when he hit the line."

Photo from 1972 Track & Field News

To the left, Pre took a STOP PRE tee shirt from someone in the stands and then enjoyed the time to sign autographs for the kids.


Without Limits phote by Linda R. Chen

1972 Olympic 5000 meter final - Munich, Germany

Pre wanted the 1972 Olympic 5000-meter final to come down to a pure guts race.  It was one of the most dramatic races ever with Pre, the young 21-year old setting it up as he ran for gold rather than just a medal  ... and Viren winning it.

[from Tom Jordan's book]   "Pre knew he would be in for a tough race.  He talked of what kind of a pace he felt it would be.  He said he felt he'd have to push the pace midway in the race, because if it turned into a kicker's race, he'd be in trouble.  He said he had a lot of respect for Viren and the others.

Without Limits photo by Linda R. Chen

The pace for the final was painfully slow.  They passed two-miles at a trot, in 8:56.4.  This was not the race Pre had said he would run.  He had wanted a race where it came down to "who's toughest," and this was a kicker's race.  Unless ... 

With 4 laps to go, he chopped the 67-second pace with a lap in 62.5; then one in 61.2.  Many in the 13-man field he dropped with that 800 in 2:03.7, but Viren was still there, and Mohamed Gamoudi of Tunisia, and Puttemans.


Photo by Steve Bence

There was a big effort to make the movie realistic.

This picture to the left demonstrates the effort to choreograph the movie to the actual Olympic race.  The movie jumps back and forth seamlessly with real footage from 1972.

Below, compare how similar the pictures are from the black & white photo in  1972 Track & Field News and a snapshot taken during the filming by Linda R. Chen.


Photo by Tony Duffy

[continuation from Tom Jordan's book

" Viren, in fact, put himself slightly in the lead, keeping the initiative, showing great poise for one who, at 23, was the youngest man in the field next to Pre.  The third lap of the buildup ended in 60.3, and at the bell, it looked like a three-man race among Pre, Gamoudi, and Viren, with Ian Stewart too far back for gold. photo by Tony Duffy


Without Limits photo by Linda R. Chen

Viren still led slightly, with Pre behind him and Gamoudi off Pre's shoulder. 


Photo by Don Chadez

At the top of the backstretch, with 300 meters left, Pre started to pull out to pass Viren, but Mohamed, one of those cagey vets Pre was so aware of, moved instantly to cut him off before he could get past out in the second lane.  Chastened, Pre dropped behind Viren again until the top of the last curve, when he tried to go again.  And again, Gamoudi moved at the perfect moment to cut him off.


Photo by Don Chadez

His momentum gone, Pre gathered one more time for the final straight, but when he tried to call up strength from deep within himself, there was no response.  Totally spent, he staggered the last dozen meters and was passed by Stewart, running for a medal.

The defeat was devastating.  Pre sought solitude in the bowels of the Olympic stadium "to examine his failure," in the words of Leo Davis.  "Once found he refused interviewers," wrote the reporter for the Oregonian.

"He didn't bring home a medal, but he helped create in that 5000 final one of the greatest, most wildly exciting distance races in history - forcing it through that incredible, four-minute, final mile, taking the lead with two laps to go, perhaps knowing already that he didn't have the late speed or the experience to hold all of 'em off.

"Viren, then Gamoudi, then Stewart, all got him, faster perhaps, wiser surely at the time.  But none any guttier

"There was no grim satisfaction that the cocky little braggart had gotten his.  He'd made the race, put himself on the line, never flagged.  Given it everything.  He always did."

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