The Prefontaine Classic is a gathering of the world’s best track and field athletes that has occurred every year since 1975 at Hayward field in Eugene, Oregon. They come to compete in events such as the 1,500-meter run, steeplechase, hurdles, pole vault, shot put and javelin, and the mile in front of a cheering crowd.
Eugene, Oregon has been known as Track Town ever since Steve Prefontaine led the University of Oregon track team to several national championships in the early 1970s under the coaching of the legendary Bill Bowerman, a co-founder of Nike. Steve Prefontaine is important in the history of track and field for a number of reasons. At the time of his death in a car accident in 1975 at age 24, Prefontaine held seven American records in middle distance events between the 2000-meter and the 10,000-meter. He placed fourth in the 5,000-meter in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was a vocal supporter of the movement to allow athletes to earn money in their sport to compete in the Olympics. At that time if they earned money in any sport they would lose their eligibility to compete in the Olympics.
The reason I recently went to watch the Prefontaine Classic was to see the best in the world compete. There are few opportunities where a person gets a chance to witness the best in the world perform, be it in a sport, or in making music, writing literature, in public speaking, or in leading people. But the scene at Hayward Field allows you to sit only feet away from the best in the world, and a chance to cheer them on as they compete. This year, the highlight of the mile race was watching Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen set a world record for under age 17 with a time of 3 minutes 52.28 seconds. He finished fourth in the race against competitors of all ages, and the three men who beat him were gold and silver medal world champions in 2018 and 2017. Ingebrigtsen’s time also beat Alan Webb’s old high school record of 3 minutes 53.43 seconds that was set in 2001.
My seat was about 80 feet from the pole vault, and the competitors in that event included several current and former world champions. Hayward Field is set up so that the spectators can see the athletes walk to and from the main track through a small walkway. They can get autographs from the athletes and talk to them. As the athletes walked past me I noticed how small and humble they were, and how they seemed like normal people. It occurred to me that they really are normal people, but somehow, they are able to apply themselves to become the best in the world at what they do. I think part of the reason they become the best in the world is that they get support from the crowds at places like Hayward Field. The people at Hayward field pay attention and they cheer when the competitors do well.
Two years ago I watched the Olympic Trials in track and field at Hayward Field. I spoke with the parent of one of the shot put athletes who explained to me that most of the time the shot putter does their best distance during practice, when they are not nervous or worried or stressed out from the travels of getting to a meet. Somehow, I think the spirit at Hayward Field allows the athletes to reach their maximum potential during competition.
Three of my favorite quotes apply to the athletes I watched at Hayward Field:
“Whatever you can do, or think you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” –William Murray, from his 1951 book The Scottish Himalaya Expedition.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” –Steve Prefontaine
“The exercise of an extraordinary gift is the supremest pleasure in life.” –Mark Twain
I think the competitors love competing at Hayward field because they know that the support they get from the fans will propel them to perform beyond their wildest dreams, to perform with genius, power and magic.[Cover photo of competitors and fans at 2018 Prefontaine Classic taken by Ben Hipple.]