Boston — A bowl of beef stew and a laurel wreath. Before today, that's all a world-class runner like Ingrid Kristiansen could ever win at the fabled Boston Marathon. And that's one reason the bubbly Norwegian says she never bothered to run in the world's oldest annual marathon.
But if Ms. Kristiansen wins the race's 90th running this afternoon, she would come away with more than exhausted legs, a leafy headress, and a stomach full of stew. The world's fastest woman marathoner would also land a lucrative jackpot at the end of the hilly, 26.2-mile course: a $30,000 winner's check, a new Mercedes Benz, bonuses for record times, and a hefty appearance fee.
A shot of commercialism has finally infused one of the nation's oldest -- and most festive -- athletic traditions. But surprisingly, in a city so proud and protective of its traditions, few people are complaining. Perhaps that's because the staid old Boston Athletic Association (BAA) had so fiercely guarded the integrity of the springtime ritual since it first blossomed in 1896. More likely, though, it's because the race's new corporate sponsor -- the John Hancock Financial Services Company -- has updated the race without trivializing its traditions.
``We're trying to get some kind of balance,'' says Hancock vice-president David D'Alessandro, gazing out the window of his glitzy 54th-floor office. Far below, workers are fitting the last planks on the grandstands next to the marathon's new finish line. Across the square, where thousands of tired but triumphant runners will gather later today, stands a fitting symbol for the 1986 race: In the plate- glass surface of the Hancock Tower, the historic Trinity Church seems to gain stature.
It's just the kind of balanced relationship of old and new that Mr. D'Alessandro hopes Hancock can deliver. ``Hancock's interest is not in totally modernizing the race,'' he says. ``We're not calling it the John Hancock Boston Marathon. We're not taking over the course with our banners. We're not doing things that a lot of other [sponsors] have done.. . . Obviously, if we wanted to turn it into a completely international sporting spectacle, we would have moved it to Sunday for network television.''
Not that the BAA would have let them. For the small, 75-member group still makes the final decisions regarding every aspect of the marathon. And it was only last year -- nearly a decade after other races began offering money -- that the group reluctantly agreed that prize money could restore the luster of their fading amateur event.
``We're not about to give up whatever we've retained over almost 90 years,'' says BAA president Francis L. Swift, a lawyer and who has practiced in Boston for 38 years. When traditions get challenged, he says, you have to seek a happy medium -- ``bending when you think you have to, but not losing everything that you've stood for.''
Throughout its history, the BAA has stood for the ideal of amateur athletics -- the pure, unadulterated athlete striving to overcome his limitations. That amateur ideal gave BAA members a disdain for prize money. But recently the disdain turned into mild distaste due to two trends: the race's declining standard of excellence; and the notion of trust funds, which allow amateurs to store away prize money and, and in order to maintain amateur status, use it only to pay their training and traveling expenses.
Still, by deciding to award prize money, ``the tradition of the amateur race probably has been given up,'' says Mr. Swift. ``But the tradition of the race itself . . . has not been bent out of shape.''
The group's decision sparked a chain reaction: It led quickly to a 10-year, $10 million Hancock sponsorship; it helped lure over 16 world-class runners who had bypassed Boston in recent years in favor of ``greener'' pastures; and it rekindled enthusiasm throughout New England -- and especially in the numerous towns through which the race course winds.
The long-awaited prize-money decision is ``bringing the BAA into the 20th century,'' says four-time winner Bill Rodgers, one of the patron saints of the running boom that started in the 1970s. The running legend has returned to Boston after skipping the race in 1984 and '85. ``Some people probably still believe that [the] Boston [Marathon] could be great without prize money -- that the most important things don't have anything to do with money,'' says Mr. Rodgers. ``That's true. But it couldn't be a top event without it.''
The marathoner pauses, then polishes off his point with a finishing kick: During the past two years, he says, the lack of competitive prize money has turned the grand old tradition of the Boston Marathon into a ho-hum ``regional race.''
Indeed, many spectators were miffed last year when they saw champion Geoff Smith walk -- yes, walk -- across the finish line in 2:14:05. It was the 66th fastest time in Boston Marathon history, but Smith still won by more than five minutes.
``There seemed to be an acceptance on everybody's part that the Boston Marathon was losing its original uniqueness and character,'' says Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who, in recent years, has run in more marathons than elections. His reasoning coincided with that of 1983 winner Greg Meyer: ``Money is only a tool to keep the tradition going.''
Mayor Flynn, who has finished four of the last five Boston Marathons, constantly pressed the need for prize money on a cautious BAA. And after the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) indicated an interest in running the 1988 Olympic marathon trial in conjunction with the Marathon, the lobbying by City Hall has intensified.
The USOC originally floated the idea because it hoped Hancock could provide it with badly-needed liability insurance. But The Athletic Congress (TAC), which organizes such trials, included stipulations that the BAA could not accept.
TAC wanted the race moved to Sunday from its traditional start on Patriots' Day, a Massachusetts holiday that always falls on a Monday.
Even Hancock fought to keep the race on Monday, says D'Alessandro. ``As a matter of fact,'' he says, ``we've . . . gotten TAC to accept Monday.'' So while the deadline for the men's trial has come and gone, there is still a glimmer of hope that a women's Olympic marathon trial may still be run in Boston in 1988.
D'Alessandro stresses how Hancock has focused on preserving the marathon tradition and providing services for the community.
One instance, he says, is in how the company has paid appearance fees to the world-class runners -- through a community clinic program.
``We're paying [the appearance fee] on top of the table through the clinic program so everybody can see. If we're going to pay these athletes, then we want to give something back to the community. . . . It's a nice deal when you can marry a commercial interest with a community interest,'' says D'Alessandro.
Certainly Ingrid Kristiansen -- and any of the potential winners in the race -- will be grateful to walk away with more than just a laurel wreath.