My closest brush with glory at university was when I nearly made it onto the baked beans eating team. Competitive baked beans eating is a highly skilled sport, requiring speed, dexterity with a toothpick and immunity to flatulence. I was good at it, arguably great. Alas, on the day of the final try-outs, several weeks of non-stop freshers’ drinking finally caught up with me, and my hands couldn’t stop shaking. I failed to make the team, and could only participate as a spectator a few weeks later when the crunch varsity match against Cambridge took place. Former Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright had inexplicably been drafted in as a celebrity judge. Despite supposedly being impartial, he came over to the Oxford table and allegedly said, “right lads, let’s stick it to the Tabs” (slang for Cambridge). Oxford won by a margin of several tins, a proud moment in a centuries-old inter-university rivalry.
I’d like to think that this story of unfulfilled potential places me in the same pantheon as Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, the James Dean of American track running who died in a drink-driving accident in 1975 aged just 24. To someone like me, born after his death and outside of the US, the hero worship of Prefontaine has always felt a bit baffling. This was a man who never won a medal on a global stage, or set a world record. Why all the fuss?
Reading about Pre, you start to understand why he was the kind of runner who could get crowds genuinely thrilled by track running. The prevailing tendency in athletics to run steady for most of the race, and then kick on the last lap, is boring for most spectators – you’re essentially drumming your fingers until lap 13, when something finally happens. By contrast, Pre was a gutsy front-runner, leading out every race hard from the gun and daring other runners to keep pace with him. The closest modern-day comparison I can think of is David Rudisha, whose 800m victory in the 2012 Olympics is still the finest piece of running I have ever seen.
Pre comes across as the kind of supremely cocky sportsman to which British crowds rarely warm. Arrogant. Brash. A sore loser. On the other hand, it was that same extreme competitiveness that made him such a force during his brief time in the sport. He could handle fatigue and pain better than anyone else, remaining unbeaten in the US over 2 miles for several years, and setting a number of long-standing American records on the way.
And he did all of this despite having limited financial resources. He was an amateur athlete for his whole career, living in a trailer and reliant on food stamps. He fought with the Amateur Athletic Union to win better rights and funding for athletes, but he ran for running’s sake, not because he expected it to make him rich. He referred to his talent as The Gift, and felt it was an insult to others who lacked The Gift if he didn’t to push himself to see how far he could go. There’s a purity in that mindset that has appeal across generations… and helps sell t-shirts and posters with his mustache on them.
There is a great book about Pre waiting to be written. Unfortunately, this is not it. Pre was a rock star of the running world, but for me Jordan fails to convey that excitement effectively. The book feels like a cobbled-together history of race reports and non-sequitur anecdotes from assorted contemporaries that tell us little about the man. You can learn so much more about the drama that Pre could inject into a race by simply watching the 1972 Olympic 5000m final, where his brave frontrunning probably cost him the bronze medal.
Right at the end of the book, Jordan throws in a couple of brief references to the fact that Pre set up a running club in his local prison and also trained teenagers at local schools, both voluntary activities that counter the impression the book gives of him as being a selfish loner off the track. Pre was also involved in the fledgeling years of a small company called Nike, becoming the world’s first sports marketing ambassador, long before Michael Jordan. More on all of this side of Pre’s life would have been welcome and fascinating.
Indeed, the Pre alluded to in these brief snippets sounds like a much more intriguing character than the one-dimensional racing fiend depicted in most of the book; beer-swilling, business-minded, and with a busy social life. A man who too, might one day see a toothpick, contemplate a tin of Heinz’s finest, and decide that he too would like to Stick it to the Tabs.