Free to Run: The Story of a Race for Liberty

European documentary features extensive footage from the UO Libraries' archives

Steve Prefontaine, 1972
University of Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine (right) with Texas Southern sprinter Robert Taylor, watching action on the track at the 1972 Olympic Trials held at Hayward Field. From Digital Collections, UO Libraries.
Film canisters in the UO Libraries archive.
Free to Run Movie Poster
From Digital Collections, UO Libraries.

A new movie from Europe offers fresh perspective on a subject that often grabs headlines here in Eugene. It also brings to light some of the best historical footage of Oregon’s most legendary runner.

Free to Run, a feature-length documentary by director Pierre Morath, traces the evolution of running from a niche sport dominated by insiders, to a fitness, recreation, and lifestyle phenomenon that is now enjoyed by millions worldwide. According to the New York Times review, "[The film] is an idiosyncratic account of the rise of long-distance running over the last 50 years, viewing it not so much as sport as a social revolution shaking off the tyranny of running federations that limited participation."

Of course, it would be impossible to tell any story about running without giving a big role to the University of Oregon. And the film's creators held one Oregon athlete to be truly iconic in the sport’s popularization worldwide. Steve Prefontaine, hailed as the foremost American long-distance runner before his untimely death in 1975, also earned a reputation as a style setter and free spirit. In order to tell the story they wanted to tell, the team from Yuzu Productions & Arte France Cinema knew they would need the very best historical footage of Pre. They soon realized they would have to go halfway around the earth to get it.

"The archival producer of Free to Run, Prudence Arndt, first got in touch with us in the spring of 2013," recalls Elizabeth Peterson, humanities librarian and curator of moving images with the UO Libraries. “People come from all over the world to use the materials in Special Collections and University Archives." In addition to books and papers, the special collections in UO Libraries house and preserve a wealth of historically significant film and video materials.

“[Arndt] asked us for specific things like news coverage of Prefontaine's death, as well as any footage we had of Prefontaine,” says Peterson. “In the final cut of the movie, there are clips of him at the 1972 Track and Field Olympic Trials at Hayward Field, other track meets where he dominated, and of his memorial service at Hayward Field. Altogether, they used six clips from the KEZI/Chambers collection, two clips from our KVAL-TV news collection, and one clip from the films in the Bill Bowerman collection."

To whet your appetite for Free to Run, check out the great Prefontaine highlights in this '72 Olympic Trials footage from the UO Libraries' KEZI/Chambers Communications collection: