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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

October 12, 2022: RunningStudying: Prefontaine on Film

[With my older son in the midst of his high school cross-country season, and both sons gearing up for their next seasons of indoor and then outdoor track, running has become a huge part of this AmericanStudier’s life these days. But it’s long been part of both my life and America overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy different sides of running, leading up to a very special Guest Post from one of those aforementioned youthful AmericanStudiers!]

On a telling storytelling difference between the two late 90s Prefontaine movies.

There are plenty of impressive American sports stories, plenty of inspiring ones, and plenty of tragic ones, but I’m not sure any such story combines all three of those modes more clearly or in a more condensed period of time than the story of Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. One of the first internationally acclaimed and successful American distance runners, Prefontaine achieved a striking series of milestones in the few years after the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics (at which he competed as a 21 year old, amidst a collegiate career at the University of Oregon in which he never lost a cross-country race and was only beaten twice in any events, both in the mile). That amazing stretch included his setting American records at every distance from 2000 to 10,000 meters over those few years, with his 13:21.9 in the 5K at the 1974 World Games a particularly stunning result. And then in May 1975, when a still only 24 year old Prefontaine was deep into his training for the 1976 Olympics, he was tragically killed in a single-car accident near his home in Eugene, Oregon.

Prefontaine’s legacy has lived on for the nearly fifty years since his death, including in a famous 10K road race that bears his name and is run every September in his hometown of Coos Bay, Oregon. But in pop culture specifically, there was one interesting late 90s moment when two competing films brought Prefontaine more prominently into the public eye: 1997’s Prefontaine (starring Jared Leto as Pre) and 1998’s Without Limits (starring Billy Crudup). [AmericanStudies aside: I’ve long been fascinated by the trend of competing movies on a very similar subject that are released very close together, and the 90s were particularly prone to that phenomenon; note for example the dueling 1997 volcano films, Dante’s Peak and Volcano!] Without Limits is certainly better known, likely because it was written and directed by the great Robert Towne and co-starred Donald Sutherland in an acclaimed performance as Prefontaine’s coach Bill Bowerman (later a co-founder of Nike); but as ever, I think an additive approach, putting these texts in conversation, is especially illuminating.

There are plenty of expected parallels between the two films, particularly in their depictions of both Pre and Bowerman (played by Tommy Lee Jones in Prefontaine). But there’s also a really interesting and telling difference in the films’ structures and uses of perspective: Without Limits focuses closely on Prefontaine and Bowerman and their relationship; while Prefontaine uses two relatively supporting characters, Assistant Coach Bill Dellinger (Ed O’Neill) and Pre’s girlfriend Nancy Alleman (Amy Locane), as the principal lenses on the runner and his story. To this viewer at least, that distinction means that Prefontaine is more interested in images and narratives of Pre, in how he was perceived and his meanings for those around him (within but also outside of the sports world); while Without Limits is a somewhat more conventional sports story, interested in groundbreaking athletic achievements and the coach who was instrumental to them. Both those lenses have a lot to tell us about why and how an individual athlete like Steve Prefontaine becomes an enduring presence in and out of sports, so lace up your running shoes and cue up a double feature!

Next RunningStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Running connections or contexts you’d share?

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