There's no better way to become an American legend than to achieve early success and then die young. This was never more true than in the 1970s: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. Steve Prefontaine (right) was 24 when he crashed his sports car on a hilly, wooded road in Eugene, Ore., only hours after running in a track meet. He was a rock and roll iconoclast performing with spikes instead of a guitar. He ran fearlessly from the front in his races, and off the track he fought the establishment for modernization of the ridiculous rules of amateurism. Two (two!) movies have been made about his life, so Prefontaine's ghost lives on as a greater runner than the man was in life. It's true that at the time of his death he held every U.S. record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters, but he hadn't broken through on the international stage. He was fourth in the 5,000 meters at his only Olympics, in 1972, and never ranked higher than fourth in the world in any event. His supporters, who remain numerous, argue that Pre was about to become the greatest distance runner in the world. Given the explosion of Africans who have dominated distance running since shortly after Prefontaine's death, that is a dubious prediction.
Dozens of times in the last two decades, track nuts and pundits have bemoaned the absence of a great American miler, always pining for the glory days of Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori. In fact, Steve Scott was at least as successful as either of them. From 1977 to '88 he was ranked the No. I miler in America 10 times and was No. 2 twice, a numbing display of consistency. During that same period he was ranked in the top four in the world six times and finished second in 1982 and '83. When Scott ran his personal best of 3:47.69 in '82 (a U.S. record), he missed Sebastian Coe's world mark by .36 of a second, and Scott's record, unlike any of Prefontaine's, still stands. Consistency? The man broke four minutes 136 times, more than any other runner in history. Scott did all this with minimal natural talent: He was a 1:45 800-meter runner, far slower than the other premier milers of his era, whom he beat regularly. Scott compensated by squeezing every drop of ability from his body, running alone twice a day in brutal Arizona heat and entering up to 50 races a year. He got cancer—and beat it—near the end of his career, and the sad truth is that if he had taken ill much younger and died, his legend would be more substantial. Like Prefontaine's.