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.