Steve Prefontaine: Nike’s First Athlete


Founded in 1964, Nike quickly rose to the top of athletic apparel and footwear companies with much thanks to endorsements from icons such as Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Jerry Rice, and Ken Griffey Jr. It is no doubt that these athletes along with many others have been a key driving force behind the brand’s success, but without the existence of one man, and you may or may not have heard his name, Nike’s longstanding success may have never came to be. This man’s name was Steve Prefontaine, and here is his story.

The year was 1970, and although middle and long distance running was not considered to be America’s favorite past time, it did have a rather large cult like following, particularly in the American North West. Bill Bowerman was track and field head coach up at the University of Oregon, and there was no runner recruited harder for his team than local high school track star Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Pre had a gift for running, but it was his personal drive that turned him into a champion. He was once quoted, “I am going to work so that it’s a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I’m the only one that can win it”.

And winning is what Pre did best. At his four years at Oregon, Pre won three NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships, only to not win a fourth because he was training for the ’72 Olympics in Munich. He also won first place titles in the three mile and 5000 meter events all four years of his college career. After breaking seven American track and field records, Pre’s life was tragically cut short after a car accident preceding the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Despite his death, Pre’s name lived on, and his accomplishments helped to inspire the 1970’s running boom where nearly 25 million Americans adopted the sport in some form or fashion. Although our curiosity leaves us to wonder what could have been, what if Pre did make it to those ’76 Olympic games? However, Pre left us so much during his short-lived life that his legacy will never be forgotten. He inspired not only his generation, but also generations to come, and without his unrivaled perseverance and attitude, running would not be where it is at today.

Not only would running be the sport it is today, but Nike would not be the company it is either. You see Bill Bowerman, the head track coach at Oregon, was also co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, which later became Nike. Nike has endorsed its fair of share of champions, and that is without a doubt, but without the company’s first true champion, Pre, who knows where the company would be at today? Pre made running popular, and Pre made Nike popular, and those two things will ensure that his legacy will never be forgotten.