The rich rewards of long distance running
In the spring a young long distance runner's fancy turns to making money hand over fist -- all while remaining a member in good standing of the Amateur Athletic Union, of course.
Bill Rodgers, who won his fourth Boston Marathon Monday, is a classic example of the opportunities open to today's top runners. So is Frank Shorter, who has parlayed his 1972 Olympic Marathon victory into a lucrative business career. And even below this superstar level there are runners capable of making $50,000 or more in a good year without damage to their amateur standings.
A lot of it falls within the rules -- or at least somewhere in that vast gray area that makes up the do's and don'ts of amateur sports. The rest, for any successful runner, depends on how much he wants to bend those rules -- or, according to some recent allegations, how far he is willing to go in breaking them altogether.
The Boston Marathon, with its long tradition plus its favorable place on the calendar near the beginning of the major outdoor running season, automatically catapults its winner into the limelight -- or in the case of Rodgers, maintains his unchallenged No. 1 standing. Even finishing second to the master, as Italy's Marco Marchei did with a time of 2:13.21 compared to Rodger's winning 2: 12.11, is sure to increase a runner's bargaining power at other big races.
The practice of giving top athletes large appearance fees thinly disguised as "expense money" has been an open secret for decades in many sports where the so-called amateur version is the most popular one. Only recently, however, has road racing commanded enough public interest and corporate support to join this hypocritical game jokingly referred to as "shamateurism."
Asked just prior to this year's Boston race if he considered himself a "shamateur," Rodgers told the Monitor:
"I think all top racers are -- both in road racing and in track and field."
The man who has become "Mr. Marathon" via his incredible string of successes in Boston, New York, and elsewhere added that not even counting the many business opportunities available, a top runner could make around $50,000 a year just from racing.
"You could make more," he said. "Most runners don't, though. Only a few. And only in the last few years."
And where is it going to lead? Is the advent of open road racing near at hand?
"It's possible," he said. "There are so many runners that it makes a good financial base for TV and for corporate sponsors. And maybe now that the Moscow Olympics have fallen through for American runners it may be a good time for it."
The lure of competing in an Olympics, of course, has over the years been one of the principal inducements toward remaining amateur -- at least in name -- for athletes in many sports. Thus the US boycott of the 1980 Games might well lead to some sort of loosening of the rules or else the creation of pro circuits in one or more such sports.
Many people indeed believe that road racing, and perhaps all of track and field, are currently in a transitional period between amateur and open status. Unless and until any changes do occur, though, the situation is a ticklish one for all involved, with few willing to be quoted, for obvious reasons.
It's pretty well established, however, that top runners like Rodgers or Shorter command hefty "expense money" because of the glamour their names add to a race. It is generally accepted, for instance, that Rodgers asked for and received somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 to run in New York last year, though all concerned seem to have memory lapses when anyone tries to pin them down as to the exact figure.
Rodgers is quite candid, however, on the subject in general.
"I find myself . . . walking the fine line between amateurism and . . . 'shamateurism,'" Bill says in his new book, "Marathoning," which appropriately enough was published on Boston Marathon day.
"The reality of inflated expense money and under-the-table payments to athletes in track and field has been with us since the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896," he adds. "Nobody denies it. Paavo Nurmi of Finland was guilty of it in the 1920s. I know a story of an American runner who participated in the 1928 Olympics. He had an open expense account at Brooks Brothers. He was taken care of that way. Hypocrisy? Until there is a modification of the rules on an international level the situation will continue to exist in one form of another."
The dramatic increase in such payments for road racers is nowhere better illustrated than in Rodgers's own case. In 1974, he said, the New York Marathon was so financially strapped (and of course he, himself, was still so relatively unknown) that he couldn't even get his expenses paid. In 1975, after having won his first Boston Marathon, he was able to get a bare minimum of expense money for New York. And even in 1976 the expenses were, as he put it, "very, very small."
All that has changed now, of course, and it does indeed look as though open racing is just around the corner -- which brings up the hard-to-overlook fact that recent attempts to similarly open up track and field by creating a professional circuit have been colossal financial failures.
"That was partly because the amateurs were doing better under the table than the pros could do," Rodgers said, describing a bizarre and hypocritical situation all to familiar to anyone cognizant of the difficulties pro tennis once had for the same reason -- or that pro skiing still encounters.
He's optimistic, though, that the time for open racing is getting close at hand.
"All the top runners I've talked to want it to go open," he added. They're tired of 'shamateurism.' They don't like it, and they're hurt by it. Only a few runners do well financially. It's very hard for the rest.
"I would like to see it. It would benefit everybody. It's crazy the way things are now. The AAU, sports writers, and athletes -- none of them can deal honestly with each other.
"It would be better to have open racing. I think we all know that."
Shorter was actually the first road racer to capitalize in a big way financially on the running boom which began to sweep the country in the mid-1970 s -- as well he should have, since it was his Olympic marathon victory at Munich that helped get the surge under way. It wasn't easy, though -- especially with the rules even stricter then than they are now -- and he had to get permission from both the US and international authorities before he could open a store with his name on it. Rodgers followed suit a few years later and now has a lucrative business including two stores in Boston and another in Worcester, Mass.
These two are thus the main entrepreneurs of their fast-growing sport, but even without all the business deals, a good runner obviously can do pretty well financially these days just on "expenses."
In addition to this perennial issue, however, there is a new twist now in the recent allegations that at least one race -- the 1979 New York Marathon -- covertly awarded actual prize money to some of the top finishers in direct violation of amateur athletic rules.
The story, originally published in The Washington Post two weeks ago and subsequently picked up in numerous other publications, said there was about $65, 000 allocated for prize money on a sliding scale topped by first prizes of $10, 000 for the men and $5,000 for the women. It said that Rodgers, who won the race, refused to accept the first prize, but that a total of about $50,000 was paid to various other unnamed top finishers.
Race Director Fred Lebow, though he is on record as being in favor of open racing and hopes eventually to turn the New York Marathon into a big money event with a $100,000 first prize, was quoted as denying the whole story as far as the 1979 race goes.
"I have not given any money to athletes other than expense money, though I do believe that the time has come for serious thought on the subject," he told the Post. "The fact of life is in athletics, track, and sports, there has always been some kind of payment in some form under the table. The time has come to put this on the table."
The reason for this state of affairs is obvious enough. It's simply a function of the facts that (1) promoters want the top competitors to enhance the stature and attractiveness of their events, (2) when large gate receipts, television money, corporate sponsorship, or any combination of these things enters the picture the stakes can suddenly get much higher, and (3) athletes like money as much as other people do -- and many of the top ones feel that they should be rewarded for their efforts and that the whole system is just something to be worked within.
Tennis in the days before it went open was undoubtedly the best known example of a sport where the top players had to remain "amateur" if they wanted to make big money while those who officially went professional had to scrape out a living. The same thing is true today in Alpine skiing and in track and field -- as evidenced by the limited success and/or outright failure of various pro circuits in these sports.