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Film: The long-running legend

Runner Steve Prefontaine was a bit of loser. Yet three films have been made about him. Why?
ALMOST 20 years after the unlikely Oscar success of Chariots of Fire, there are two new running films on the starting blocks. One, from Disney, due in autumn and called Endurance, is about the current celebrated Olympic champion and world record- holder, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. But the other, Warner's Without Limits, released on 4 June, is a stranger offering altogether, the more so in that it is the third major filmed production on the life of Steve Prefontaine (right) in the last couple of years.

Now, unless you are a close follower of track and field athletics, and unless you are well over the age of 40, you will be perfectly entitled to ask, Steve who? Because Prefontaine never won an Olympic title, or even a medal; he never set a world record, and he was killed, possibly drunk, in a driving accident in 1975.

Yet, following a USTV documentary, Fire on the Track, two years ago, and the feature Prefontaine last year, here comes the third leg of the relay.

Billy Crudup stars as "Pre", as he was known to friends and fans, and Donald Sutherland plays his coach, Bill Bowerman. The rest of the film has equally impeccable credentials. It is directed by Robert "China" Towne, and co-written by him, along with the former Olympic marathon runner and Sports Illustrated writer, Kenny Moore (a former university colleague of Pre's). The film goes to great lengths to incorporate original film footage with well-staged action, using top-class American athletes playing the 1972 Olympians Lasse Viren, Mohammed Gammoudi and Britain's Dave Bedford and Ian Stewart.

This, at least, lends a large element of credibility to the film, something that is notably lacking in most sports features about world-class competitors, where one of the biggest drawbacks is having actors who can't play the sport, or athletes who can't act.

But the question remains, why any of these productions? As the veteran US film writer Andrew Sarris points out: "He was a loser, and American films, especially sports films, are all about winners."

There is a similar telling line in the TV documentary. Prefontaine had been widely quoted before the Munich Olympics, as saying that he would run the last mile in the 5,000 metres in less than four minutes if necessary. In Fire on the Track his British rival, Ian Stewart, who outkicked the American for the bronze medal in Munich, repeats something that he said at the time: "I always got the impression he thought he was the only one who could do that, whereas I knew I could, but I also knew four others who could as well".

But it's the James Dean elements in his life, and especially death, which keep the Pre legend alive in US athletics. For he is still the yardstick against which today's US long-distance runners are measured.

Prefontaine was a good-looking, straight-talking, pugnacious son of immigrant stock, living in frontier territory in Oregon, and he caught the imagination of a generation of American fans and writers by his bravura front-running in an era when athletics was still a headline sport in the US.

It was also on the threshold of professionalism, and Pre made no bones about his feelings towards the blazer brigade. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, was a former college half-miler who wished he had been Pre, and did the next best thing, signing up the runner as one of Nike's first athletic representatives. Indeed, Nike funded Fire on the Track, and the company is also the main sponsor of the annual Prefontaine Classic athletics meeting at Hayward Field, Eugene, Pre's Alma Mater.

A former colleague says of him: "James Dean was playing Prefontaine before Prefontaine. But Dean was only playing the role; Steve was the 100 per cent real thing."

Pre's defiance of tactics led to his breaking all the US records, from 2,000 to 10,000 metres, and his death a year before the Montreal Olympics only ensured the legend.

Without Limits is a cut well above most sports movies, but it is predicated, as is most of the Pre legend, on the supposition that the athlete would have won the gold medal in Montreal. But it's doubtful whether Pre would have had any more success against the unstoppable Lasse Viren than he had in Munich four years earlier. Contrary to its title, Without Limits is going on limited release in Britain. It will be interesting to see whether it lasts the distance.

The author wrote and presented the recent BBC Radio 4 series `Sport in the Movies'