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'Prefontaine' premieres at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah "Prefontaine" breaks most of the rules of the sports movie genre. It's about a runner who did not win his big race, who was abrasive and cocky and not always a nice guy, and who led a rebellion against the amateur sports establishment of the early 1970s.

Steve Prefontaine, however, was the kind of runner whose posters still grace the walls of athletes' dorm rooms. And he was such a romantic figure that not one but two new movies are based on his life: "Prefontaine," and another biopic set for release in November.

"He was like James Dean for a lot of the people he met," says director Steve James, who interviewed Pre's friends, family and coaches while researching the film. There's a vividness to their memories of the athlete, who died at age 24 in a car accident. "Frank Shorter, who knew him well, said he almost had to leave the screening because the memories came back so strongly."

"Prefontaine" marks the first project for Chicago filmmakers James and his partner, cinematographer-producer Peter Gilbert, since their breakthrough documentary "Hoop Dreams" (1994). Like it, "Prefontaine" is about the way the sports establishment uses athletes and then discards them. "Prefontaine," which opens commercially Friday in theaters nationwide, had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Prefontaine did his running at the University of Oregon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the legendary coach Bill Bowerman, who built his revolutionary running shoes in a garage behind his house, and went on to co-found Nike. Pre was not built like a runner, especially not a distance runner. "The way he ran was, he'd take the lead and just try to keep the lead, and try to burn people out," James said. "He didn't have the kick at the end, and he was small for a distance runner, but he never left an ounce of energy on the track."

To play Prefontaine, James cast Jared Leto, who was Claire Danes' co-star on the TV series "My So-Called Life." It's a convincing bigscreen performance. "Jared made himself a runner," James said. "We knew we could train an actor to look plausible on the track, but what we couldn't do without were the eyes - Prefontaine had such intense eyes, and when Leto walked in to the audition, that was the first thing I noticed.

"He did a lot of research on Pre; how he talked, how he walked. He had an idiosyncratic running style. He had short legs, so he ran more from his upper body, holding his arms up higher, and his head cocked."

Gilbert said he found some documentary moments in this film: "There is a scene where Prefontaine wins a race, and the fans are shouting 'Pre! Pre!' and he realizes something basic has happened - for the first time, the threemile event has developed some of the glamor of the shorter distances. He became the first runner to wear his hair long, to run victory laps; it became a style. Steve (James) asked Leto to reflect that moment of realization in his face. I was shooting, (documentary) style, and zoomed in, and I felt in my bones that I caught that moment; it was like shooting a documentary and seeing something happpen."

At one time or another, Prefontaine held most of the NCAA records, but he never won a gold medal at the Olympics. He was on the 1972 U.S. team, and the night before his big race was the night of the massacre of the Israeli athletes. His race was eventually run, but he lost to a Finnish runner.

Back in Oregon, he found that the life of an American amateur athlete was bleak after college. He worked as a bartender and lived in a trailer. "At that time, amateurism was used as a bit of a hammer to keep athletes poor," James said. "After Pre graduated, he couldn't be paid as a coach and still be considered an amateur. The Europeans subsidized their athletes, but ours had to train while making a living."

When Pre invited the Finnish track team to a challenge match in Oregon, he risked banishment by American amateur sports authorities. But he didn't back down, was supported by Oregon teammates and eventually won, helping to clear the way for the landscape of modern sports. "Here was a kid who didn't like demonstrators, who was politically conservative and who became a radical not because he won a race but because he lost one," James said. "In a way, he gained more than losing. He changed the face of American sports."

Now his story seems to be changing some of the oldest cliches of sports movies. It's refreshing to see a movie athlete use plain talk, come across as cocky and brash, and flatly predict his victories. Films like this may be clearing the way for the Dennis Rodman story.

See Friday's WeekendPlus section for Roger Ebert's review of "Prefontaine" and Sunday's Showcase section for more Sundance coverage.

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