The words of A. E. Housman's poem, "To An Athlete Dying Young," have been appropriated to fit the untimely passing of virtually any sportsman, but they seem especially fitting when applied to the life of Steve Prefontaine.
Prefontaine, who won 20 straight races at Hayward Field on the Oregon campus, died at the age of 24 in a car accident in Eugene, Ore., in late May 1975, four hours after running the second-fastest 5,000 meters in U.S. history.
"Steve Prefontaine was a guy who couldn't realize his potential. His story is one of those that is better than fiction," said Craig Masback, a former distance runner and track analyst, who will call Sunday's Steve Prefontaine Track Classic from the University of Oregon for CBS (4:30 p.m., Channel 13).
The meet, which will feature some of the great names in the sport, including Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Gail Devers, Quincy Watts and Sergei Bubka, concludes a rare four-hour showcase of track and field on network television.
Immediately preceding the Prefontaine Classic is a one-hour documentary, "Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story," sponsored by Nike, which is appropriate since Prefontaine was the first athlete to wear the company's trademark "swoosh" logo.
The special examines Prefontaine's brief but spectacular career, as well as his fight against the Amateur Athletic Union for increased rights and opportunities for athletes.
"He had a profound political legacy. All of the changes that occurred in track and field in terms of professional opportunities started with this guy. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see them," said Masback, a communications attorney in Washington who broke Prefontaine's last American record, in the 2,000 meters in 1982.
And before the documentary, CBS will air the NCAA outdoor track championships from Knoxville, Tenn., at 2 p.m., in which Arkansas goes for its fourth straight team title and Louisiana State looks for its ninth consecutive women's championship.
"The impact of this day for track could be very significant. This is the kind of special event that can make a real difference for the sport if enough people watch," said Masback.
Nearing the end of the road
NBC's weekend NBA playoff plans are up in the air. If the Indiana Pacers win tonight's sixth game of the Eastern Conference championship series (Channel 11, 9 p.m.), the seventh and decisive game would air Sunday at 7 p.m.
The best-of-seven league championship series against the Houston Rockets will start next Wednesday in Orlando or Indiana.
Keep an eye out for the "Hoop-It-Up" special Sunday at 4 p.m. (Channel 11) Bill Walton, Steve Jones and Ann Meyers look at the popularity of the three-on-three basketball tournament, including a feature on Walton coaching his children.
NBC's French Open coverage tomorrow will air either at noon or 3 p.m. (Channel 11), but certainly will go at 1 p.m. Sunday. Both days will have three hours of coverage.
ESPN has the first game of the NHL's Eastern title series tomorrow night from the Spectrum, between Philadelphia and New Jersey, and Fox (Channel 45) will have Game 2 of the Chicago-Detroit Western series at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Also, ESPN will have opening-round play in the College World Series from Omaha, Neb., today with Florida State meeting defending champion Oklahoma at 3:30 and Miami taking on Southern Cal at 7:30.