This piece first appeared in Competitor Magazine.
Written by: Bob Babbitt
Their first meeting came after the 1972 Olympics. At those games in Munich, America’s young gun, Steve Prefontaine, took fourth place in the Olympic 5000 meters while New Zealand’s Rod Dixon took home a bronze in the 1500.
For the man called Pre, finishing off the podium was a bitter disappointment. Check that. The guy could have cared less about being on the podium. If he didn’t leave Germany with the Gold Medal, the trip to Europe in his mind would have been a horrific waste of time. Kenny Moore recalls running into Pre in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium after Moore had finished fourth in the marathon. “I was struggling with how I should feel about the experience,” Moore recalls. “I had had a great race, but I hadn’t medaled.” Pre put his hands on Moore’s shoulders and told him that he was the fourth best marathoner on the planet and that he should be incredibly proud of his achievement. Moore then asked Pre how his 5000 meter event had turned out: “I took fourth,” he said, fairly spitting out the number. “Fourth is awful.”
The message was clear: While fourth place was just fine for the Kenny Moore’s of the world, fourth is certainly not up to the standards or expectations of one Steve Roland Prefontaine. At one time Pre held every American record for the seven distances ranging from 2,000 through 10,000 meters He was the James Dean of American running with his long hair, mustache and always-race-from-the-front attitude.
Rod Dixon also had long hair and a mustache, but his style of racing differed from Pre: “I raced to win,” admits Dixon. “I didn’t want to prove that I could push the pace harder or longer than anyone else. I wanted to be the first person across the line.”
Four years earlier, in 1968, Dixon was sitting on a river bank near his home in Nelson, New Zealand listening the finals of the Olympic 1500 meters from Mexico on his transistor radio. “The signal was coming in and out and the static made it hard to hear,” he remembers. In the finals the two leading men were running legends Kip Keino of Kenya and America’s Jim Ryun. “I was glued to the radio listening to the finals and hoping that one day I would be the one running the 1500 at the Olympics. That was my dream.”
How about this for a dream come true? Four years later, Rod Dixon lined up for the first round of the 1500 in Munich. “On my left was Kip Keino,” he says, “and on my right was Jim Ryun.” Not only did he run the 1500, he took home the bronze. A few weeks after Munich, he was in London at a post-Olympic track meet at the Crystal Palace and both Dixon and Pre were entered in the two mile. “Pre was coming down from 5,000 and I was stepping up from the 1,500,” says Dixon. “I sat on him and outkicked him at the end. He broke the American record, I broke the Commonwealth record, but Pre was upset at me for not sharing the pace. I walked up to him after the race to shake his hand and he called me a f*&^ing Kiwi and he stormed off.”
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