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The Race Is On : Warner Bros. and Disney are neck and neck in making a film about the life of Olympian runner Steve Prefontaine.

February 11, 1996|Kevin Baxter | Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

Take Exit 192 off Interstate 5 in western Oregon, turn west and you'll find yourself in Eugene, an idyllic college town full of wide boulevards, espresso bars and big houses with well-tended yards. But head east and you'll wind up in Springfield, a town of trailer parks, auto body shops and rundown apartment buildings.

Steve Prefontaine spent thousands of hours running through the streets of both cities. And while he could have been elected mayor of Eugene, he chose to live on the other side of the tracks--almost literally, since train tracks run alongside Springfield's River Bank Trailer Park, where Prefontaine lived in a tiny single-wide trailer. He may have turned Eugene into Track Town USA and helped make Nike a household word, but even at the height of his short-lived athletic career, Prefontaine identified with the hard-working, blue-collar folks who make up Springfield and all the cities like it.

"He was a maverick of sorts," says filmmaker Steve James. "That's something that appeals to any time."

And it's certainly something that appeals to Hollywood, where, nearly 21 years after Prefontaine was killed in an auto accident, two big-screen versions of his life story are in the works. James and partner Peter Gilbert, who teamed up on the critically praised "Hoop Dreams," a documentary that followed the ups and downs of two high school basketball stars, are working feverishly to finish a script for Hollywood Pictures. The project, tentatively titled "Pre," will be distributed by Disney's Buena Vista Distribution Co.

Warner Bros. also has a film in development under the same name. Robert Towne ("Chinatown," "Personal Best") and two-time Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore--who were originally part of a team pitching a script to Disney--are polishing their completed screenplay. Towne will also direct the movie with Moore serving as an executive producer.

Although early word was that both studios hoped to have their picture in theaters by July, in time to take advantage of the hype created by the Olympic Games in Atlanta in July and August, the fact that neither movie has advanced past the development stage makes an early summer release improbable. But with competing studios working on identical films at the same time, speed has become almost as important as content.

"I love to race. I'm the right guy for this," Moore joked. "Pre would love this."

Moore, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, was a frequent training partner of Prefontaine's and the two were teammates on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He first approached Towne about a film treatment of Prefontaine's life in 1977, and they've been batting the idea around ever since.

"For me, the emotions have been spread out over many years," Moore says. But, he adds, the delay isn't likely to lessen the appeal of Pre's story.

"He is an important American athletic figure," Moore says. "He was so riveting to people; he affected people so deeply. We have to see if we can make the next generation understand him."

James and Gilbert, who see sports as a vehicle to explore larger issues, also see Prefontaine's story as one with a natural, timeless allure that needs no tie-in.

"His was a very interesting, truly American story," says Gilbert. "He was a . . . complex person. His background is very complex. The way he ran was very interesting, the way he died was very ironic."

Although he had the aggressive mentality of a football player and the muscular build of a wrestler, distance running was the sport at which Prefontaine excelled. As a high school senior in Coos Bay, Ore., he set a national prep record for the two-mile run. At the University of Oregon, he set seven national records and at one time was the fastest American in history at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.

But while he won more than 75% of his races during an eight-year career, he never earned an Olympic medal, finishing fourth in his only try. That race, the 5,000-meter final at Munich in 1972, ended with a wild four-man sprint won by Finland's incomparable Lasse Viren. News photos of the finish show a spent and dejected Prefontaine leaning toward the tape, as if trying to force his barrel chest across the line ahead of the jubilant Viren.

"It was one of the most amazing Olympic races of all time," says Gilbert, who plans to make it a focal part of his film. "That was one of the only races Pre didn't lead from the beginning. Munich, I think, changed him quite a bit."

Prefontaine's German-born mother, Elfreide, has long called the loss the biggest disappointment of her son's life. Others say it made him more human. It definitely made him more political: After Munich, Prefontaine became a leader in the fight for athletes' rights.

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