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‘I’m the only one who can win’: Ingebrigtsen and Kerr will carry spirit of Prefontaine into face-off

The Paris 1,500m rivals will line up against each other for the first time this year in Saturday’s Bowerman Mile in Oregon

“What I’m going to try to do is work it out so it will be a pure guts race in the end, and if it is, I’m the only one who can win.” – Steve Prefontaine, before the 5,000m final, at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Given the weekend of running in store, it’s only fitting that the world’s best athletics column should tap into the spirit of Pre. It’s easy too – even blindfolded I can write this stuff faster than the next guy, and 98 times out of 100 will be first across any deadline.

Because in some ways Steve Prefontaine, better known as Pre, was the original of the arrogant and show-boating distance running stars. And long before Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Josh Kerr started their gentle bragging act claiming to be the best 1,500m runner in the world.

It’s fitting that Ingebrigtsen and Kerr will race each other for the first time this year at Saturday’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, the only American stop of the 2024 Diamond League, at the revamped Hayward Field at the University of Oregon. And in the headline event that is the Bowerman Mile, named after Pre’s legendary coach Bill Bowerman, who also wasn’t shy of boasting about his credentials.


This is Pre country, and though born and raised in the Oregon coastal state city of Coos Bay, his home track too. Hayward Field is where Pre first made a name for himself, the first American runner to win four NCAA titles in one event. It’s also where he ran his last race, winning the 5,000m a matter of hours before crashing his gold car into a rocky roadside ditch while returning from a celebratory party in the hills outside Eugene. Pinned beneath the wreck of his own car, Pre was pronounced dead at the scene.

That was 49 years ago next Thursday, in the early hours of May 30th, 1975. He was 24-years-old. That was less than three years after his first and only Olympic appearance, in Munich where he ended up fourth in the 5,000 metres, narrowly outsprinted for bronze by Britain’s Ian Stewart. He’d run from the front for most of the last four laps and was inconsolable at the finish. Lasse Viren won it.

It’s often said Pre was to American distance running what James Dean was to American cinema, only a rebel with a cause. “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints,” he once said, “I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race. It’s style.”

A week after his death, the first Prefontaine Classic was held. Last year it doubled as the Diamond League final, with Ingebrigtsen winning the Bowerman Mile in 3:43.73, the third fastest ever, just .60 off the 3:43.13 world record.

Saturday will be his first race since, the 23-year-old Norwegian has been away from the racing track for over eight months after an Achilles injury he sustained last October. He’s also had “an unbearably tough” year, in the words of his older brother Henrik, due to the increasingly bitter split from their father and former coach Gjert Ingebrigtsen.

By his own unabashed accounts, however, Ingebrigtsen’s training has him exactly where he wants to be. And Saturday’s clash is also the perfect teaser for the three and three-quarter-lap Olympic showdown against Kerr on August 6th.

Earlier this month, speaking about his Olympic 1,500 metre prospects on a European Athletics podcast, Ingebrigtsen said: “If I don’t get injured or sick, I think it’s going to be a walk in the park.”

When he won his Olympic 1,500 metre gold in Tokyo, aged 20, Ingebrigtsen effectively ran from the front, clocking an Olympic record of 3:28.32, with Kerr third in 3:29.05, still his lifetime best. Last year, Ingebrigtsen ran 3:27.14, the fourth fastest in history.

Of course Saturday, or Paris for that matter, won’t be a two-man race, with Kerr’s fellow Scot Jake Wightman, Yared Nuguse from the US (second to Ingebrigtsen last year in 3:43.97) and Olli Hoare from Australia all capable of victory, although my money is on Ingebrigtsen.

After Kerr ran a two-mile world indoor record last February, clocking 8:00.67, their gentle trash talking resumed, having started in Budapest last August, after Kerr outkicked Ingebrigtsen to win the World Championship 1,500 metres.

Asked about Kerr’s performance, Ingebrigtsen, who last summer ran an outdoor two-mile world record of 7:54.10, told Tv2 in Norway he “would have beaten him [Kerr] in that race, blindfolded ... but it’s good that people run better than they have done before.”

That in turn prompted this most excellent headline on the Runner’s World website: Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Who Lost to Josh Kerr Without a Blindfold, Says He Could Beat Him With a Blindfold.

After losing to Kerr in Budapest, Ingebrigtsen said afterwards that he’d been sick all week, and “if you stumble or fall, then someone is going to win the race, and he was just the next guy”.

Later, speaking to various other media outlets, Kerr said that Ingebrigtsen has “major weaknesses” proliferated by his ego, but may not be aware of them as he’s surrounded by “yes men”, and has “flaws in the manners realm”.

In February, Ingebrigtsen went at it again, telling Stavanger Aftenblad, a Norwegian daily, that Kerr’s “desperate attempt” at psychological warfare may look “silly at some point” as he knows he wins “98 out of 100 times” against Kerr and Wightman. “I’m pretty sure I’ll win next time anyway.”

Then in March, Ingebrigtsen hosted Rick Broadbent of the London Times, at his home in Sandes, and when asked about his apparent arrogance said: “Some athletes are scared of saying they are going to win because they’re scared of the downfall if they don’t. What’s the fun in being like that? If I’m not trying to win, then I’ll read a book.”

Ingebrigtsen then softly added a line that rang true of the old “Stop Pre” T-shirt. “This is competition. It’s not a love story.”

They’re not yet taking their trash-talking to any Ali-Frazier level, but there’s a hint of bad blood in there somewhere, and that’s great for the sport. Pre would have loved it, and no doubt approved.

Go Pre!