Los Angeles never has been considered the most therapeutic of towns, what with its nonfreeways, carcinogenic grease clouds—sometimes they are called air—and Hollywood. Better, cynics have said, one should try the waters of East St. Louis or an Encounter session in Newark. But last Saturday, when some vexed, doubting athletes converged on the Los Angeles Sports Arena for the 14th Annual Sunkist Indoor Track Meet, the city suddenly became a veritable health spa.
What had given everybody the downs in the first place was the horror of Munich, that and the two-pronged incompetence of the AAU and NCAA, institutions with a mutual dedication to the ideal that people who run. jump and throw should acquire their daily bread only through food stamps. Until recently, and yet to be proved, track never rewarded its practitioners with lucrative professional careers. For the diligent there was only that shining bauble called the Olympic Games to overcome the blisters, burning lungs, fatigue and fatuous 17th-century rule enforcers. Then that dream turned nightmare, and track's existential question of the moment was a unanimous, "What am I doing this for?"
For sustained soul-searching it is possible that no one came close to young Steve Prefontaine, the superb distance runner from the University of Oregon whose performances leading to the Games gave promise of something better than his fourth-place finish there in the 5,000-meter run. Prefontaine ran twice after Munich, once in London and once in Rome, losing both times in races where the killer instinct that had cut down countless rivals in the stretch was totally lacking. "I just gave up," he said Friday night in Beverly Hills. "In Rome, with 200 meters to go, I waved the guy behind me to go ahead, and if you know me you know I don't do that. I just didn't care. I didn't have the spirit."
Returning to Eugene, where he shares a house trailer with his dog Lobo, he did not do much running for two months and took a bartending job at a place called The Paddock during Christmas vacation, but the athletic respite was an uneasy one. "After the Olympics," he said, "I was really full of doubts about everything. The Olympics was what I had been working for as long as I had been running, and then the way they turned out over there it all seemed to have been worthless."
When he resumed training, Prefontaine adopted his tireless regimen of interval and road work too zealously. The strain and freakish sub-zero snow weather in Eugene brought on tendinitis in his left knee (at exactly the same spot where it afflicts Dave Wottle, the 800-meter gold medalist).
Prefontaine's aches and doubts were not the only intriguing facets of the Sunkist two-mile run. The very good field also included Lasse Viren, the 23-year-old Finn who won both the 5,000-and 10,000-meter gold medals at Munich: Frank Shorter, the Olympic marathon champion; Marty Liquori, fresh from his first mile victory of the season on the East Coast the night before: and Tracy Smith, track's answer to Judge Crater, whom none of the other principals could remember seeing in a race during the last three years.
"If I just get out and feel I'm competitive," Prefontaine said to Shorter on Friday night, "and have a good race and give it all I have, it will be a worthwhile experience. It could be a motivating factor for me to keep on running. If my knee starts hurting and I place last, I might wonder, 'Should I continue this year or not?' "
Shorter, the United States' first Olympic marathon champion since 1908 and recipient of the Sullivan Award for outstanding amateur athlete three days before the L.A. meet, uses indoor competition as little more than a training diversion, two miles being a trifle short for his taste. He wasted little of the evening in deep concern over his chances for victory, particularly in view of the absence of speed work in his training. "If I don't win, it's no major calamity," he said while extolling the virtues of Taos, N. Mex., where he hopes to lure Prefontaine for high-altitude training this summer "so we can bring the world two-mile record back to America."
That outdoor record, 8:14.0, was set by Viren, a rookie cop in his hometown of Myrskyla before he went to Munich, but at the Sunkist he talked like an unlikely adversary for Prefontaine. "It would be nice to run well against him," he said through an interpreter from the Finnish Consulate who explained, "Viren is not in very good condition. He hasn't worked out the last three days because of stomach trouble and he feels weak. When he has air in his stomach before he runs, it makes his stomach bulge out like a football."
While Prefontaine and Shorter were knocking off their entrees on Friday, Liquori was running to a 4:03.8 triumph in the Philadelphia Classic mile, and with a coast-to-coast plane trip the next morning he did not figure as formidable competition.
The way Prefontaine ran the race, his competition was the last thing that he was worrying about. Jumping into an immediate lead, he sped through the first quarter in 63.4. A quarter of a mile later he had the race to himself. He toured his first mile in 4:13.8, then threw in a 62.2 quarter and led by 100 yards during the last six circuits of the track. He lapped Greg Brock and Don Timm before finishing to a reverberating ovation that, for decibel level, outdid the Super Bowl played next door in the Coliseum six days earlier. He was timed in 8:27.4, little more than a second off Shorter's American indoor record. Liquori, who forgot he was supposed to be tired, out-kicked Smith down the stretch to take second place while Shorter finished fifth. Viren, who briefly ran in third place, never challenged and ended a distant sixth.
"I felt weak from the beginning," Viren said. "Already at the start I felt that I couldn't go too fast in this condition. It was my first competition this year indoors and I couldn't find the right rhythm. I only ran 30 miles all week in training. I usually run 20 miles a day." Viren, however, was consoled by Leo Sjogren, a former Finnish Olympian now in his 50s who said, "Wednesday we had him over to the house and my wife gave him good Finnish blueberry soup. That will fix up his stomach. It was the first day that he didn't have to run to the toilet."
Running for other reasons, Prefontaine said, "This is a start. I feel self-satisfied because it's the motivational factor I've needed since the Olympics. It's headed me in the right direction. I wish Viren had been healthy and ready. I would have run here even if he wasn't coming, but I did want to meet him again. I can't count this as a big victory because he wasn't running as well as he can, but if I had run 8:50 and finished third I would have walked out of this place and never run another track meet in my life, mostly because of the things that have happened in the last five months."
The spectators, of course, had more than the two mile to cheer. Young Steve Smith of the Pacific Coast Club set a world indoor record when he pole-vaulted 17'11"—an act born of appreciation—and blocky Al Feuerbach got a world mark for keepers when he put the shot 69'4½". Smith, the hottest vaulter in the world right now, won Friday at Philadelphia with 17'4" but quit after making that height because he wanted to save something for the Sunkist. Reaching L.A. with Liquori about 30 minutes before his competition began, he offered powerful evidence that sleep is not an essential requirement for athletic excellence—if you remember your buddies.
"I was particularly glad to get the record in this meet," he said, "because the promoter, Al Franken, has been very good to me in the past and let me compete when I wasn't as good as I am now. I'm really appreciative of what he's done for me."
Smith also has some bad memories of Munich and the controversy there that in the end succeeded in robbing him and Bob Seagren of the poles they had used to reach the Games. "The Olympic pole-vault medal wasn't worth the gold in it," he said, "and Wolfgang Nordwig's mark wasn't as good as last place in this meet. I think that when I get a stronger pole and set my grip higher, I'll be able to go 18'6" or 19' consistently."
Feuerbach, who could moonlight as a trucking-company safe, shoved the shot 69'4¾" last year at Pocatello, Idaho, but the mark was denied recognition as a world record. Sunkist officials assured everyone, however, that the 69'4½" would find its way to proper accreditation.
"They took the world record away from me last year because I had taped my hand," Feuerbach said. "That's all right. It gave me a chance to set the record all over again."
Wottle, who because of his own pains was on the verge of pulling out of the mile, turned in his Silky Sullivan act. Going wide and wild down the homestretch, he beat Kip Keino at the wire and said it was the best he had felt in weeks. Keino, either showing his age—he is 33—or the effects of running in torrid temperatures at the African Games in Lagos, Nigeria the week before, did not have his usual lift.
But for all their infirmities and travail, a lot of track people started feeling better about things in Los Angeles on Saturday.
HIS PAIN ONLY A MEMORY, STEVE PREFONTAINE CHUGS ALONG UNCHALLENGED IN L.A.