Filling in Prefontaine's answers

Updated: May 31, 2005, 12:25 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

The 30th anniversary of Steve Prefontaine's death has caused his remarkable story to be retold, as it was after 25 years, 20 years, 15 years, 10 years and five years. Plus every Summer Olympics, plus every U.S. Track and Field championships, plus every time there is a big meet in Eugene, Ore.

The Prefontaine Legacy
Steve Prefontaine died May 30, 1975, in a car accident in Eugene, Ore. He was 24 at the time of his death.

Prefontaine was the face of American distance running. He made bold, brash predictions -- and usually backed them up. At one point, he held every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. Yet he never set a world record and failed to win an Olympic medal in 1972 (he finished fourth in the 5,000 meters).

Prefontaine is still lionized in running circles. Runners at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, Ore., stop at his memorial and kiss a plaque as part of a yearly ritual. Times are still compared to his. He was a key component in Nike's growth; says Nike founder Phil Knight: "He not only set a tone for his sport, for me at least, he set a tone for this whole company."

This weekend, the annual Prefontaine Classic will be held at Hayward Field in Eugene. America's top track stars will be there ... paying homage to Prefontaine, 30 years later.

Oh, and there were two 1990s movies, too.

In other words, Steve Prefontaine remains a significant, and haunting, figure in U.S. track channels, just because he is. If you have to ask why, you're way behind the curve.

But while there is nothing more to say about his life, given all the regularly scheduled retellings, one does wonder what a living Prefontaine, in retirement and enjoying the back end of a life vibrantly lived, would think of the landscape of his sport.

Oh, those who knew him back then would have an educated guess, based on his rebellious and obstinate nature when he was the talk of the sport.

But people change, even ones who died well before their time, and it is not unreasonable to see him as a conflicted fellow, at least as the subject of his favorite pastime is concerned.

Would he find the seeming blackballing of Marion Jones to be one more example of the track establishment's tentacles choking the athletes into submission? Or would he remember how he made his bones the hard way and decry the dodgy relationships Jones had to put her in this current stage of hell-by-circumstantial-evidence?

Or would he just say, "Not my problem any more. I run for fun, and nobody can stop me. Everybody else is on their own."

He might even have chucked his interest in the sport long ago, having seen how it has slowly deteriorated as a point of interest in the United States, how it only peeks its head over the water line in Olympic years and when grand juries are involved.

Or he might have found the joy of the sport when the camera platforms don't loom over the press box, when high school kids gather to run because the voice in their heads tells them to, and because there are no parents around to drown that voice out with rules and regulations and expectations and over-organized meet schedules.

That's the thing about dying too young ... what you leave behind is subject to others backing-and-filling what your life would have been if only you'd had one.

Steve Prefontaine
Rich Clarkson/WireImage.comNo one is sure how Prefontaine would have reacted to today's track climate.

Prefontaine has been conceptualized, ritualized, theorized and de- and re-constructed to the point where he has become whatever the person speaking at the time says he is. He is still a towering figure in a sport that turns its figures over at a rapid rate, and now that the sport is being flogged by the long and virulent shadow of Victor Conte and his as-yet-unnamed fellow chemistry professors, he is the living embodiment of that fictional Simpler Time, when all was good and true and upright and forthright, whether it was or not.

Thus, if he had lived, he might have discovered that his sport had taken a hideous turn toward the dark side ... or he would have said, "Man, if you knew what I knew back then, you'd have laughed at this stuff."

And there's your truth about Steve Prefontaine 30 Years After. That what we think we know, we do not. That the depth and breadth of the drug issue in sport goes far beyond mere steroids, and that the chemists are still ahead of the cops. That Marion Jones is an entertaining sideshow but barely a 30th of the story.

And that track is more than this anyway. It's about one person running when nobody's looking, or testing, or giving you something that needs be tested. It's about finding the joys available on a quiet shaded path, or a dirt road under a vindictive sun, or around a rubberized track on a Sunday afternoon when the rest of the world is playing softball, or at your grammar school meet when your parents cheer for you and then take you out for ice cream whether you win or finish seventh.

Maybe Steve Prefontaine would have given you that answer if you could have asked him the question. Or maybe he would have said, "Who cares?" He died young, which means you supply the answers to your own questions.

He ran until he ran out of time. And everyone else was on their own.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor at ESPN.com