I have been extremely troubled by the growing polarization of Steve Prefontaine's athletic prowess. On one hand, there will always been immense amounts of ignorant fanboys (most of the time literally boys) who eat up every word and image that Nike puts out. I have to admit, I was one of those fanboys at one time although probably one of the more knowledgeable fanboys on the topic. On the other hand, there is a growing multitude of people (mostly men in this case) who bash on Prefontaine and all they can talk about is how bad he is. I think the latter group of people is infinitely worse than the first. They constantly tear down a figure who is overall very good for the sport. Yes, Prefontaine liked to have a good time but he was still one of the world's preeminent distance runners. An athlete does not achieve what Pre did without a certain amount of hard work.
Now back to the original question: How Good Was Pre? My initial answer: At the time of his death, easily the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) American distance runner. For all intensive purposes I am going to classify 'distance runner' as from the mile through 10,000 meters. Surely Ryun would have beaten Pre at the 800 or Mile and probably Shorter at the marathon. Next we will examine how Pre fared against the period in which he ran. Many often say something stupid like: 'Cam Levins and Lawi Lalang just ran faster than Pre in the 5k, Pre isn't that good'. Yes, they ran faster but there are a lot of factors to consider when comparing different periods. I'm not going to be like Ventolin^3 (Letsrun) or Cocakula (tracktalk, probably the same dude) who trys to put exact time conversions on certain things like track technology, shoe technology, nutrition and training knowledge, better competition, the fall of amateurism, etc but those things all clearly had an effect on the times that were run. It also just makes logical sense that records are going to improve over time. Is Lawi really anywhere near as good as Henry Rono despite running similar times? No.
The first event I would like to examine is the Mile run. This is far from Mr. Prefontaine's specialty yet he was only 3.6 seconds off the world record and 3.5 seconds off the American Record at the time of his death. The American Record was held by one Jim Ryun whom some consider to be the best miler of All-Time. There are currently only 6 men within 3.6 seconds of Hicham El G's World Record in the Mile. There are only 7 men within 3.5 seconds of Alan Webb's American Record in the mile. All 13 of those men have something in common with the exception of one (Daniel Komen of Kenya), they are all true-milers. What is the point here? Steve Prefontaine was a world class miler when his specialty is in the longer distances.
Let's look at the 5000 meters next. Steve did hold the American Record and was only 8 seconds from the World Record. Put him 8 seconds behind today's World Record and you have a 12:45. The Current American Record held by Bernard Lagat is 12:53. Many often use his lack of Olympic Medals as criteria for him being 'overrated'. Americans haven't won an Olympic Medal in the 5000 since 1964. Until Rupp's silver in 2012 it had been the same Olympiad since an American won a medal. What does this say? If not among the best runners ever, Prefontaine should still be considered one of, if not the best American of All-Time. Lets not forget that this all is coming from a man who died at the age of 24 and who competed in his last Olympics at 21. Galen Rupp didn't truly emerge as a world-beater until 25 and at 26 he appears to still be rising. I hate 'what ifs' as much as the next logical person but in certain situations they can't be avoided. This is one of them.
In the end, this argument all comes down to how much an individual values the comparison to athletes of the same time period. Pre didn't have to face East Africans nearly as much as Rupp does. Rupp also didn't have to work in a bar or work at all for that matter. Prefontaine was the GOAT American at the time of his death and his range has yet to be surpassed by any. Athletes like Galen with his 3:50.9i and Lopez with his 800-5000 range are approaching Prefontaine's level. Even Bernard Lagat can't claim Pre's range (as an American) as he has only excelled at the 1500-5000.