ATHLETICS Panorama: Remembering Fred Thompson, Steve Prefontaine and Franklin Jacobs

Fred Thompson, founder and coach of the Atoms Track Club

Sports creates enduring memories, not only of events and wins and losses, but of the places you go and the people you meet. In the past week, this was underscored by three unforgettable people who made the sport better.

● The most recent, and sad, occurrence was last Tuesday’s passing of Fred Thompson, for decades the coach of the Atoms Track Club in Brooklyn and a man in the forefront of promoting women’s track & field.

He was an outstanding coach and a dynamic personality. If he was present, you knew it right away, whether you were another athlete, a coach, a spectator or especially if you were an official in an event in which his athletes were competing.

If one of his athletes was a sprinter, he was at the start. If a long jumper, he was right next to the pit and watched carefully to see where she took off from and if the official in the sand marked the jump properly. And his enthusiasm when his athletes did well was widely noticed because he did not hold his emotions back.

He cared deeply for his athletes and some of them were stars, including Cheryl Toussaint and Diane Dixon, who won Olympic relay medals in the 1972 and 1984 Games, respectively. A lawyer by trade and a formidable personality if you took the time to speak with him, he cared as much for his age-group runners as he did for his stars. This video from the 1970s explains Thompson’s impact well and showcases what one person can do to change lives through sport.

Thompson passed on 22 January at his home in Brooklyn, New York, apparently from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. The New York Times had an excellent obituary here.

● Last Friday, 25 January, would have been the 68th birthday for distance icon Steve Prefontaine, who died in a car crash in Eugene, Oregon at age 24 back in 1975.

Pre was deservedly a legend, because his fearless running style and brash personality made you either love him or hate him. There was very little in between, but he was the greatest American distance runner of his time. He held American Records in the 2,000 m, 3,000 m, 2-mile, 3-mile, 5,000 m, 6-mile and 10,000 m at various times between 1971 and 1979. His best 5,000 m mark of 13:22.2 from 1974 lasted until 1976 and his 10,000 m time of 27:43.6 was not surpassed until 1979.

He won seven NCAA titles for the University of Oregon, two national championships in the 3-mile and finished a memorable fourth at the 1972 Olympic 5,000 m in Munich.

Running in the “shamateurism” era of the 1970s, he was a huge draw, especially at indoor meets where fans could see him up close, but he bemoaned the lack of opportunities for athletes to be paid directly. But his impact was felt as the rules began to change dramatically in the years following his death.

He is remembered annually at the Prefontaine Classic track meet. Originally known as the Hayward Field Restoration Meet when inaugurated in 1973, the name was changed two days after his death and the 1975 meet was held in his honor, and ever since.

Pre helped make the Nike brand, developed in Eugene, world famous, and promoted it tirelessly in its early years. The brand has not forgotten him, nor should anyone who appreciates competitive zeal.

Franklin Jacobs is, happily, still alive, but back on 27 January 1978, he set an amazing World Indoor Record of 2.32 m (7-7 1/4) at the Millrose Games. Impressive for sure, but astonishing for someone standing 5-8!

That jump, some 23 1/4 inches above his head, has never been surpassed for the unique “jumping over your height” category. It was equaled by Sweden’s Stefan Holm in 2005. He is 5-11 1/4 and jumped 2.40 m (7-10 1/2). In fact, Holm keeps track of this particular statistic at his own Web site, with a list of everyone who has jumped 50 cm (1-7 3/4) or more over their height. He and Jacobs both cleared 59 cm over!

Jacobs, of course, was among those athletes whose Olympic dreams were shattered by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. He eventually settled in Arizona, working as a manager for a home-building company there. But he is still remembered for his exploits on the infield and how he amazed the crowds everywhere he went in the 1970s.

Thanks to Walt Murphy’s excellent Eastern Track results service and daily track & field history bulletins for noting the anniversaries of Prefontaine and Jacobs. If you are interested in knowing more, contact Walt at

Kenyan distance star Jemima Sumgong, the 2016 Olympic Marathon winner in Rio, had her suspension for doping doubled from four years to eight by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)’s Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU).

Her original doping positive was reported in April 2017. Her explanations for the incident did not ring true and the AIU brought another action against her for “a false explanation of her r-EPO before, and the submission of false medical documents by her to the Kenyan Tribunal.” The complete decision is here.

This second action was judged to be another doping positive under the rules in which a cover-up is considered as a positive in and of itself. So her period of ineligibility was extended to April 2025, when she is 42.

Sumgong can appeal this decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Brett Clothier, Head of the AIU said; “We welcome the decision of the Disciplinary Tribunal. We hope that it sends a message to dopers that the AIU has strong investigative capabilities and does not tolerate false evidence in doping cases.”