It is by design the purest form of competition, individuals maximizing natural skill and physical limits to determine a winner. There was a time when track and field was not merely sport but a source of national pride.
And now, in the United States, its pulse barely registers. American track and field is not quite dead but you need giant ears to hear its heartbeat.
The sport has not held up well over the years, certainly not after the events of 35 years ago on May 30, when an orange MG sports car skidded and flipped on a road in Eugene, Ore., killing its sole occupant. Track and field lost a lot of its will and spirit.
Moreover, America lost a treasured piece of itself.
The death of Steve Prefontaine at the tender age of 24 didn't kill track and field in this country, but it dealt the sport a crippling blow, after which it was too vulnerable to withstand considerable challenges within as well as the rising popularity of other sports.
We don't see it on network TV anymore and we no longer flock to its events, the numbers of which dwindle with each decade. The sport that gave us Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens and Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson and Bob Hayes and Jim Ryun now has virtually no profile in the U.S. Casual sports fans don't know the major record-holders, nor can they readily identify the American superstars--because, well, who are the American superstars?
Prefontaine was on the verge of being precisely that. A ferocious competitor who thrived in the spotlight, he was a teenage legend in Oregon--on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 19 -- who had become the dominant American distance runner and was on the verge of becoming a national phenomenon.
It was not until the 1970s that the American hype machine discovered there was an overdrive gear for sports. Trails boldly blazed in the 1960s by Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, who blended athletics with entertainment, opened up completely, creating freeways to fame traveled by the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Montana and, eventually, the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird tandem that secured the future of the NBA before passing the ball to Michael Jordan.
"Pre," handsome and charismatic and outspoken, had the gifts for membership into that select group. He was a product of relentless tenacity, with a dazzling personality. A nascent track shoe company in Oregon, then known as Blue Ribbon Sports, liked Prefontaine and his promise well enough in 1974 to make him its very first athlete/client.
This was four years before they changed the name and a decade before they created the lab that launched the global brand that is Jordan. From the start, it seems the folks who evolved into Nike Inc. were able to recognize star quality and visualize possibilities.
Pre at the time of his death held an astonishing eight American running records, from a prep two-mile record set at Marshfield High in Coos Bay, Ore., to domestic standards for races from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters.
In the absence of a dominant American men's sprinter, Prefontaine was equipped to become an ambassador for the sport in the U.S. He could have carried it in ways Ryun or Bruce Jenner did not. In ways the aloof Carl Lewis never could.
Prefontaine finished fourth in the 5,000 at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when he was younger by two years than anyone else in the race. Had Prefontaine he performed as expected in '76, Leonard would have had an Olympic teammate who was at least his equal in visibility and as a promotional gold mine. So rare was the great American distance runner that Pre might have transcended the Wheaties box and been given his own cereal.
But a year earlier, at the peak of his powers, he went down forever and nobody filled the void. No one stepped up to carry the flag on behalf of U. S. track and field.
American men at Montreal in '76 received no medals for the 100, the 1,500, the 5,000 or the 10,000. They were shut out in the marquee sprint and dominated in the distances at which Prefontaine excelled.
So was hastened the demise, domestically, of a sport that once was a weekly TV staple, with events that sold out arenas like Madison Square Garden. Many traditional annual meets have been canceled since the 1980s and those that continue--like this weekend's California Invitational at Sacramento--struggle to attract sponsors.
An exception is the Penn Relays, which last month attracted 117,346 during three days in Philadelphia. Nearly half showed up for the one-race appearance of Usain Bolt, the world's fastest human.
As Bolt entered Franklin Field to warm up, the crowd roared. Even though America's best were competing, the dominant colors in the stands were not the red, white and blue of the U.S. but the yellow and green of Jamaica, Bolt's homeland, an island nation of about 3 million.
That's what U. S. track and field has come to, its best athletes, on their soil, seeing the Jamaican flags and hearing chants of "Jamaica."
Years ago those chants might have been for "Pre." Would have been for "Pre."
We can't know where he might have taken the sport. Insofar as he was an exceptional and magnetic performer, blossoming at the right time, we'll always wonder.