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THE LEGEND LIVES ON : Even though Steve Prefontaine died almost 10 years ago, the memory of his life and controversy surrounding his death are as alive as ever

May 06, 1985|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

Prefontaine apparently was among the first distance runners to give a loud and profane voice, as another eulogy claimed, to the problems of amateur athletes. This was before big shoe company contracts and lucrative road races started to change the definition of amateurism.

It was Prefontaine who arranged a track meet between Finnish and U.S. athletes on May 29, 1975, in Eugene. In his last race, Prefontaine beat his good friend, Frank Shorter, in the two-mile run, although he fell a few seconds short of his own American record in that event.

After attending a local party, Prefontaine, one of the early favorites for the 5,000-meter run in the 1976 Olympics, dropped Frank Shorter off at the house of Kenny Moore, the Sports Illustrated writer and former Olympic runner, in a fashionable part of Eugene.

Said Prefontaine's girlfriend, Nancy Alleman, now Nancy Stanwood of Palo Alto, who was with him at that party: "I thought he was fine. He seemed capable of driving. He was not slurring his words. I wouldn't have described him as drunk. He was happy because he ran a good race."

Said Frank Shorter: "He was in the same condition I was in. We'd had three or four beers and he seemed fine. I trusted him to drive."

It wasn't out of character for Prefontaine to have been drinking that night. Once, when he failed to break his record for the two-mile at the Sunkist Invitational, Prefontaine said: "I'm not in shape. If only I could keep my weight down."

A friend said: "Stop drinking beer."

Prefontaine replied, "I'd just as soon stop breathing."

After talking with Shorter for a few minutes about mutual track concerns, Prefontaine left Moore's house a little after midnight early Friday morning, May 30, but he never made it home.

"The sad thing about it is that he was only 24 when he died. He had at least six good competitive years ahead of him at that point. Even then, people who didn't like track used to come out to watch Pre run, just like people who don't like tennis will go see John McEnroe play. He had the charisma to be able to take track to a new level of popularity. Now we'll never know."

--Tom Jordan, senior editor at Track & Field News and author of "Pre!", a 1977 biography.

Lieutenant Richard Loveall, 43, is a day watch commander for the Eugene Police Department. Ten years ago, Loveall was a patrol seargeant who was the first police officer on the scene of Prefontaine's car accident.

The career that began with such promise a mile away at Hayward Field ended on a sharp curve in the foothills of east Eugene, on Skyline Drive, exactly 156 feet from where that drive intersects with Birch. It was there that Prefontaine's gold 1973 MGB hit a rock wall and he was killed.

"There's no doubt in my mind or the department's mind about what happened that night," Loveall says today. "He was a drunk driver."

Around Eugene, however, the police department appears to be singular in that conviction and all that it implies. It is bitterly ironic that Prefontaine's death has been at least as controversial as his celebrated life.

Many in the community--Pre's People in particular--believe that Prefontaine was instead run off the road either accidentally or intentionally and did not die through his own negligence.

It's still a sensitive issue in Eugene because the police department resents the belief that it didn't handle the case professionally.

Pre's People in turn resent that the department released Prefontaine's blood-alcohol level, found to be .16. At that time, in Oregon a level of .10 was considered driving while intoxicated and .15 was a criminal offense. Also in 1975, making such information public was not customary.

The National Alcoholism Council in Santa Ana said that a 150-pound man would have to have at least five to six drinks to register a .16 blood alchol level. Loveall said that what remains with him most about that accident was the pungent smell of alcohol, although no containers of any kind were found in the car or at the accident scene.

Loveall added that the department even went as far as to summon a fire department ladder truck so that the crime lab photographer could take aerial photos of the accident scene.

The pictures--something the immediate family has not seen--show Prefontaine splayed on the pavement, with the car pinning him at the chest. Prefontaine's MGB hit the wall at an undetermined speed and upon impact--he wasn't wearing his seatbelt--Prefontaine was thrown to the pavement with the car following on top of him.

The Lane County coroner's report said that Prefontaine had died of traumatic asphyxiation, a form of suffocation, and could've lived no longer than a minute under those conditions.

The speed limit on Skyline Dr. is 25 m.p.h. and driving that blind curve at that speed requires the driver's utmost attention. The curve at 30 m.p.h. requires two hands on the wheel to negotiate and in only third gear at 35 m.p.h., it becomes a most treacherous road to handle.

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