Small flames flickered in the darkness, dancing on a cold wind that blew through the University of Oregon's Hay-ward Field late last Saturday night. More than 500 people holding candles sat in the weathered bleachers of the track stadium, remembering Steve Prefontaine, a native son who died 20 years earlier when he was the soul of American track and field. There were speeches by Prefontaine's contemporaries, laughter and tears, and then a long silence until a young voice shouted from the seats, "Go, Pre!"
Gently at first and then urgently, the crowd began stamping its feet, as if Prefontaine were circling the track below, winning one of the 20 races of more than a mile in length that he ran—without a defeat—at Hayward. The stamping continued for nearly a minute, and then the crowd fell quiet. It was difficult to know what was taking place: a memorial to Prefontaine on the eve of the meet that bears his name or a funeral for the sport he cherished.
Track and field comes annually to Eugene for competition and for excellence. But last weekend it also came for renewal and survival. It has been a discouraging spring for the sport. The Bruce Jenner Classic in San Jose was saved only by an infusion of European money, and the New York Games were attended by fewer than 5,000 people. Mobil's sponsorship of the Grand Prix circuit reportedly is hanging by a thread. And Sunkist has withdrawn title sponsorship of its Los Angeles indoor meet, moving indoor track in the U.S. one step closer to extinction.
"I've never seen the sport lower," says Carl Lewis. Michael Johnson, who beat Lewis easily in the 200 meters in Eugene, says, "I'm really ready to throw up my arms and say, 'This is the nature of the sport in this country, and that's it.' People just have too many other things to watch."
But there is something magical about Hayward Field, a track temple in the style of European venues where the sport is not just viewed but worshiped. Sunday's Prefontaine Classic drew a sellout crowd of 13,665, live network television coverage and the sort of passion that is missing from nearly every other U.S. meet. " Hayward Field is a very, very special place," says 1992 U.S. Olympian Annette Peters, who finished second to Laura Mykytok of Raleigh, N.C., in the women's 3,000.
There was another sign on Sunday that track and field still has life in the U.S. In the 20 years since Prefontaine's death, the steepest decline in American track performance has been in distance running. The U.S. still has superb sprinters ( Johnson, Lewis, Leroy Burrell, Mike Marsh, to name just a few) and jumpers ( Lewis, Mike Powell and Kareem Streete-Thompson) and even a hammer thrower (Lance Deal) who could win a medal at the world championships in G�teborg, Sweden, in August. But except for Steve Scott, whose U.S. record in the mile, 3:47.69, was set in 1982, and Alberto Salazar, whose best marathons and 10-kms were run from 1980 to '83, there has been no U.S.-born middle-distance or distance threat in nearly two decades.
But that dry spell may well be ended by the rise of Steve Holman, Bob Kennedy and Todd Williams. On Sunday these three newcomers were the centerpieces of the meet, running Prefontaine's events on Prefontaine's track. First came Holman, a 25-year-old Georgetown graduate. He ran a 3:50.91 mile last summer and is aiming this year not only toward the world championships but also toward breaking Scott's U.S. mile record. Holman ran Sunday's mile wearing a borrowed singlet, shorts and spikes (his luggage was lost by an airline). He moved into the lead with about 400 meters to run and kicked the final lap in less than 56 seconds to win in 3:52.89, the fastest time in the world this year.
As he crossed the line, Holman thrust his right arm into the air, stopped dead and then played to the crowd, which was completely out of character. "Runners are sedate people," Holman said later, "but people come to see personalities. Hopefully the fans got their money's worth out of the mile." If they didn't get it from Holman, they surely did from the fact that 12 other runners broke four minutes.
Scarcely a half hour later came the two-mile, in which Kennedy and Williams set off in pursuit of Marc Davis's year-old U.S. best of 8:12.74. Kennedy and Williams are a matched set: Both are voracious trainers who reject the mediocrity that was so pervasive among U.S. distance runners in the 1980s and early '90s. "I'm not running 120 miles a week and lifting weights to sit and kick," says Williams.
Kennedy, 24, is also willing to push the pace. He ran 13:02.93 in the 5,000 last summer at the Bislett Games in Oslo, becoming the ninth-fastest man in history at that distance. This summer he will chase a medal in Sweden and Sydney Maree's U.S. 5,000 record of 13:01.15. "I'm more fit than I've ever been in my life," says Kennedy, who lives in Bloomington, Ind.