(It’s an Olympic year. For all the fabulous entertainment to be had as a sportswriter—chronicling the circus aspects of standard football, baseball and basketball happenings—nothing quite equals Olympic circumstances. Exotic travel. Political context. Global curiosities. I stumbled into the job of Newsday’s Olympic beat writer, a most enlightening activity. Some people just have all the luck.)
In 1972 Stan Isaacs, a giant in the sportswriting business who briefly brought his whimsy and intelligence to the role of sports editor at Newsday, assigned me to cover the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore. I was no Olympic expert and, furthermore, Stan originally wanted to send one of Newsday’s esteemed baseball writers to the trials as part of an extended West Coast package deal. The Mets and Yankees had scheduled stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego right after the 10-day track event.
The baseball guys declined. They had lives. I was still single, so what amounted to three-plus weeks on the road hardly seemed unreasonable. Besides, I had just been promoted from two years of covering high school sports; this would be the Big Time. Furthermore, it could be argued that coverage of a track meet had launched my journalistic career.
I was a freshman at Alemany High School in San Fernando, Calif., and had just signed onto the student paper, the Pow Wow, in the spring of 1962. My brother, Gene, was a varsity hurdler, and it happened that my first by-lined story reported his school record in the 70-yard high hurdlers. (It was a rarely run event, sustaining the record’s longevity and its extended presence on a school plaque, which prompted a friend to declare Gene “a hysterical landmark.”)
What I didn’t write about in the Pow Wow, but probably should have, was Gene’s willingness to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship in pursuit of points for the team. He dabbled in the shot put and, on an occasion when Alemany needed a second pole vaulter merely to clear a minimum height to provide the winning margin in a dual meet, Gene volunteered.
This did not seem entirely irrational to me. When we were younger, he would vault into his upper bunk by grabbing the bed post and rising, feet first, into bed. Alas, in his school vaulting debut, he got sideways on the way up and came down on the vaulting uprights, causing some structural damage to the equipment. So, no Alemany victory. No pole vaulting for anyone for a while.
But he lived.
Anyway, back to Eugene. Oregon. (No relation.)
Everything about those ’72 trials was appealing. The competitive urgency—only the top three finishers, among scores of athletes in each event, would qualify for the Olympics. The setting—Hayward Field, on the University of Oregon campus, was the home office of the school’s celebrated coach, Bill Bowerman, a co-founder of Nike whose public jogging programs there were an early spark in activating the American running boom.
Eugene already was proclaiming itself “track capital of the world.” (These days, its slick brand is a slightly more humble “TrackTown USA.”) A vast number of spectators in the trials’ daily capacity crowds seemed to include a stopwatch among their accessories. As well as a pair of running shoes, at a time before running shoes were worn for anything but running. My juxtaposition to so many folks so casually familiar with fitness, beyond the athletes themselves, helped shake me out of my fat period and prod a circadian running habit that still persists.
It would be another 12 years before I covered the first of my 11 Olympics. (Sports editor Isaacs already was credentialed for the 1972 Munich Games, thyroid surgery bumped me out of Montreal in ’76 and President Jimmy Carter’s U.S. boycott of Moscow in ’80 nixed that assignment.)
But the ’72 track trials offered an enticing glimpse of international sport’s sway. The event’s tangible expectation led me to seek out local prodigy (and emerging global player) Steve Prefontaine, then a 21-year-old Oregon junior who already held American records at two distances and already had a reputation for arrogance. In fact, he seemed friendly enough, and hardly aloof.
“Look,” he said. “I don’t even want to talk about track right now. If you want to talk about the birds and the bees or the local pubs, that’s different. I hope you’ll understand. I’m very nervous about all this and I get upset easily. Somebody will ask a dumb question and I’ll blow up and I don’t want something like that to happen.”
So, no formal interviews, but with his 5,000-meter race not scheduled until the eighth of the meet’s 10 days, Prefontaine nevertheless proceeded to be a constant presence at Hayward Field, signing autographs, sitting shirtless in the sun, jogging when the track was clear. It was as if being seen let everyone—especially his rivals—know he was ready. “I don’t want to give away all my secrets,” he said. “But I sure want them to know I’m around. It’s a psyche.”
He won the 5,000, breezily, breaking his own U.S. record, his star still rising. He ran with conviction, his head cocked slightly to the left and upward toward the scoreboard clock, his own pace more a concern than any challenge from his competitors.
Within three years—after having set every American record in seven distances from 2,000 to 10,000 meters—Prefontaine was not around, killed in a one-car accident hours after winning another 5,000 race at Hayward Field. There were reports of an excessive blood-alcohol level. And I remembered that he told me, instead of track, we could talk about the best pubs in Eugene. Duffy’s, he said, was his favorite.
The trials returned to Hayward Field in 1976 for the next Olympic cycle, as energized and dramatic as their first run there. But with an entirely different Prefontaine presence. Shortly after his death in May of ’75, city and university officials had completed a woodchip-and-bark running path through grasslands and woods alongside the Willamette River near the university campus. It had been Prefontaine’s idea, modeled on the style and terrain of European cross-country courses he had experienced while competing overseas.
Of course, I took my daily runs during the ’76 trials on Pre’s Trail, along with multitudes of other trials’ visitors and local residents. I bought a “Remember Pre” t-shirt.
This July, for a sixth time, the Olympic trials will return to Eugene, culling the U.S. track men and women who will compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. Hayward Field will be packed with the nation’s most knowledgeable track fans. Pre’s Trail will be crowded with runners, some more serious than others. And fortunate sports journalists will get to sample the whole bonfire of enthusiasm.