Yes, all the truly great runners are called Steve (or Paula!)
Steve Prefontaine. Why him? After all, he wasn’t that successful – some US records and a fourth place in the Olympics (1972 5,000 metres). But there was something about Pre, something magical, mystical, mythical even, that communicated itself to fans, to the public, even across the Atlantic to a fledgling teenage runner in Croydon.
He would always run from the front and try to burn the others off; any picture of him running shows his eyes narrowed in intense, zen-like concentration and effort; they said that, when he stepped on his home track in Eugene, Oregon, the sun would invariably come out; he lived in a caravan at the foot of a mountain; he rebelled against the archaic amateur rules of the time; he looked like a pop star; he was a pop star to US track fans – they shouted, “Go Pre,” through his every race; and he died young, crashing his car after drinking perhaps too much beer, after winning his last race, defeating Frank Shorter in a near US record 5000.
I only saw him race once – ironically, in the one race he didn’t finish – the Coca Cola 2 miles at Crystal Palace in 1974, where Brendan Foster deployed his trademark mid-race burst to gain a winning lead. But he was my first running hero and I remember him still.
Steve Ovett. The man who could do anything. On 26th July 1974, Ovett then still a junior of 18, turned out for his club and ran four races, the most impressive being a 21.7 200 metres on cinders. As Athletics Weekly pointed out at the time, he was the reigning UK Junior Cross-Country champion! In later years, he would do things like winning a half-marathon if his 800 metres race was cancelled. Oh, and he won Olympic 800, European 1500 and Commonwealth 5000 metre golds, and set 1500, mile and 2-mile world records. I was there at Crystal Palace in 1978 for the last of those: he passed Henry Rono halfway down the finishing straight, slowed to wave to the crowd, who proceeded to shout at him, so he would speed up and break Foster’s record by two tenths. I like to think it’s partly my record.
Steve Jones. The vest outside the shorts. The crew cut. The pacesetting – he ran 1:01 for the first half of the 1985 Chicago marathon, slowed down, and eventually missed Carlos Lopes’s world best (2:07:12) by one second. Jones had set the previous world record the year before at Chicago, and he was the quintessential runner’s runner, doing things like winning two local 10km races in the same day. Not only was he one of the very few who could accomplish something like that; he was the only one who would think of doing it.
Steve Cram and Steve Scott. The British prodigy and the American testicular cancer survivor who holds the world record for the greatest number of sub-four minute miles (137) raced each other often. Brendan Foster once said that if nobody trained at all, Cram would win every race because he simply had the most talent of any runner in history. When they came first and second in the inaugural World Championship 1500 in 1983, Said Aouita was third and Steve Ovett fourth. The commentators reckoned that Said was Moroccan for Steve.
Steve Spence. The American marathoner got the best out of himself in training intelligently and relentlessly – and hanging back from the early pace in steamy Tokyo – to sneak a bronze medal at the 1991 Worlds, but that is not why I like him. On 11th May 2016, Spence ran a sub-five minute mile for the 41st consecutive year. His daughter, Neely (born the day that Steve ran Boston in 1990), was first American woman in the 2016 Boston Marathon.
Steve Smythe. From sub-5 to sub-3. Putting that feat in the shade perhaps is Steve Smythe, who on 19th February 2017 ran the Seville Marathon in 2:56:16, 40 years and 119 days since his first sub-three marathon – a world record span.
Steve Moneghetti. The Australian marathoner set a world half marathon record at the Great North Run, and won Commonwealth bronze (1986), silver (1990) and gold (1994, being interviewed, completely composed, about five seconds after finishing). He also finally got a World Championships medal – a bronze in Athens 1997 – and, most impressively of all, finished 30th in the World Cross Country in 2004 at the age of 41.
Etienne Gailly. Grainy youtube footage shows the muscular Belgian paratrooper entering the London Olympic stadium first in the marathon of 1948, but he has nothing left, and Cabrera of Argentina and Tom Richards of Great Britain pass him on the track. He stops and walks. Officials shout to him and wave their programmes. He staggers. The fourth-placed runner can be seen in the distance. Somehow he makes it to the line to claim the bronze. He is stretchered off.
Steve Till. The talent of Ovett or Cram, the commitment of Gailly, Prefontaine or Jones, the longevity of Scott, Spence, Smythe and Moneghetti – Steve Till can boast none of those, but is honoured to recognise, articulate and celebrate the special qualities of these running Steves.