This incident dates back to 2005. I was cruising through a sports quiz at National Law School in India, when I missed a question on an athlete. I felt bad that I didn’t know the answer.
We won the competition hands down but the missed question kept haunting me.
The question I missed was about a man, who died at the age of 24. He was the best athlete the American distance running team had in the late 1960s and ’70s — a distance runner who had his own ideology about running, and winning: “Winning is nothing when you haven’t given your best. It doesn’t feel the same, when you win without giving one’s best.”
His coach tried to change his philosophy, but couldn’t. This man on the run represented the University of Oregon.
He shared a healthy relationship with the coach of the US athletics team and they both agreed to disagree. So they questioned each other’s fundamentals and philosophy of running and winning all the time but remained good friends till the end.
The first sign of protest came when he took on the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) and demanded an athlete’s right to participate when qualified.
He was tipped as one of the favourites to win 5000 m Olympics at Munich in 1972 but eventually lost out to Lasse Viren of Finland. He finished fourth after leading the race till the last lap. He couldn’t bear the loss and took some time out, until he was able to come to terms with reality. He distanced himself from his love. Finally, he started training again, refused an offer to turn professional, and thereby kicked the chance to earn $200,000. He went to his coach, tried a new pair of shoes that the coach had made for him and went out for a run. He agreed to be an amateur and seek redemption at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
He raced pretty well in the trials and had planned to set a world record to win the 5000 m in 12 minutes 36 seconds — that was the time he had chosen, a world record back then. Those were the last words he said to his friend.
He dropped his friend home and while on his way to his girlfriend’s place, with whom he had just got back good terms with after parting following the disappointment at Munich Games, met with an accident while he was foreseeing his race and contemplating about performance in the upcoming 1976 Games.
But fate had other ideas. He died in the car crash — it was May 30, 1975.
I hope many readers are smarter than what I was back in 2005, when I heard about him for the first time, and must already have guessed the name. The athlete was Steve Pre Fontaine, nicknamed ‘Pre’, born on January 25, 1951.
Now that name is on, I am sure there are better websites dedicated to him to give better stories about him. I would just like to share few things:
In 1978, AAU agreed for athletes’ guarantee rights to compete wherever qualified.
The small shoe company that the coach had inadvertently begun went on to became what we know today as ‘Nike’. The coach was none other than Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike.
The final words by Bowerman in the movie sums up ‘Pre’: “All my life, man and boy, I have operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the race. Naturally, when I became a coach I tried to teach people how to do that. I tried to teach Pre how to do that. Tried like hell to teach Pre to do that. And Pre taught me. Taught me I was wrong.
“Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that a mediocre effort can win a race and a magnificent effort can lose one. Winning a race wouldn’t necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from start to finish. He never ran any other way. I tried to get him to, God knows I tried… but… Pre was stubborn. He insisted on holding himself to a higher standard than victory. ‘A race is a work of art’; that’s what he said; that’s what he believed and he was out to make it one every step of the way.
“Of course he wanted to win. Those who saw him compete and those who competed against him were never in any doubt how much he wanted to win, but how he won mattered to him more. Pre thought I was a hard case. But he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn’t to win a race. It’s to test to the limits of the human heart. That he did… Nobody did it more often. Nobody did it better.”
That’s where the film ends.
I recently saw the movie again, and it brought back memories six years old. I say, just watch it, to paraphrase that shoe manufacturer’s catch line.