Did Rosie really run? The 84th BAA Marathon in Boston (better known as simply the Boston Marathon) was rocked right down to its venerable sneakers April 21 when a 26-year-old New Yorker named Rosie Ruiz, unknown in New York running circles, apparently won the women's division of the race in a record-setting time.
Doubt was immediately cast on her victory. By her own admission, she was running in only her second marathon and had bettered her previous time by an astonishing 25 minutes.
The controversy momentarily overshadowed another outstanding performance by local hero Bill Rodgers, who won the race for the third straight year with a time of 2:12:11. His string ties him with the legendary Clarence DeMar of Melrose, Mass., who crossed the finish line first in 1922, 1923, and 1924. The win, Rodgers's fourth overall, also ties him with Gerard Cote of Canada (four victories during the 1940s) for second in lifetime wins. DeMar won seven Boston titles in his long career.
Rodgers had gone into the race a heavy favorite in a field weakened by holdouts. Many foreign runners, including last year's second-place finisher, Toshihiko Seko of Japan, bypassed Boston to peak for the Olympics, while some US runners were saving themselves for the Olympic trials in Buffalo May 24 -- this despite US nonparticipation in the Moscow games.
Rodgers himself had recently been an outspoken critic of the US Olympic boycott. He threatened to wear a black armband during the race to protest the boycott decision, but later decided against it. "I thought about doing it right after the boycott was announced," Bill said, "but I realized it would be too much of a political gesture and I shouldn't do that in a sporting event.
"[The] Boston [Marathon] has nothing to do with the Olympic boycott."
In a sense, the Boston race, steeped as it is in the tradition of great runners and great victories and run in Bill's "hometown" (he lives in suburban Sherborn), became a substitute Olympics for him. Rodgers had finished a disappointing 40th at the 1976 Montreal games, when his legs "gave out" after only 13 miles. The 1980 Olympics was to have been a vindication for the 32 -year-old veteran racer, perhaps the best-known distance runner in the world today.
Warm weather has traditionaly been a nemesis for Rodgers, who set a course record of 2:09:27 here last year under cool, drizzly conditions. So despite the diluted field, 72-degree temperatures brought speculation that a warm-weather runner might pull an upset.
But not even the sunshine could hold back a determined Rodgers this day. Trailing early in the race, as is his custom, he opened a lead by the midpoint of the 26-mile, 385-yard course and was never seriously challenged thereafter -- a factor he later said was crucial.
"I had a lot of trouble on the hills and might have given thoughts to dropping out if I had been pushed harder by the field," he reflected after recording the slowest time of his four Boston victories.
Rodgers's difficulty with the course and the heat made it seem even more incredible that Ruiz could complete the course in 2:31:56. The time, if legitimate, would shatter the women's mark of 2:35:15 set last year by Joan Benoit, and would rank as the third-best time in women's marathon history.
Ruiz, who was not spotted at any of six traditional checkpoints along the marathon route, told reporters she had competed in only one other marathon in her short career -- last October's New York Marathon. Her time in that race, she said, was 2:56.
Race officials were reviewing the situation Tuesday. Marathon director Will Cloney agreed that "grave doubts" remained as to the winner of the women's event. Race officials pointed out that Ruiz's presumed starting position well back in the Boston field meant she would have had to wait about four minutes after the gun before she could cross the starting line. Subtracting these "wasted" minutes from her finishing time moves it within seconds of the women's world record (2:27:33) set by Greta Waitz of Norway at the New York Marathon last October.
The first challenge to Ruiz's finish apparently came from Fred Lebow, New York Marathon director, who was attending the Boston race and alerted Cloney to the various questions being raised about the authenticity of the result.
Race officials did concede that a woman runner, especially an "unknown" running among the thousands of male runners on the course, could have been missed by their spotters. Leaders in the women's field are not specifically checked for, as in the men's race, a policy that Jock Semple, the assistant Boston Marathon director, said was likely to change next year.
For the present at least, Jacqueline Gareau of Montreal is the second-place finisher, with a time of 2:34:28; Patti Lyons of Quincy, Mass., places third, in 2:35:08. Both Gareau and Lyons have run sub-2:40 marathons within the last year.
One male runner, John Peele, told reporters he ran alongside Miss Gareau between the 17- and 20-mile marks and heard the crowd yelling "you're No. 1" and "first woman" to her. Cloney and other race officials have said that a thorough investigation "may take days." Television tapes from local stations will be reviewed and male runners who finished near Ruiz will be questioned.
Ruiz stuck to her guns Tuesday, however, appearing on a local TV show and insisting she had run the entire course.
"I'm upset," she said, ". . . but it's not up to me to clear myself, because I ran the race."
Lost in the commotion over the women's race were the grumblings of runners cut from the official field. Lower qualifying times shrank the list of official entrants from more than 8,000 last year to 5,394 (including 449 women) in 1980. The cutback had been a necessity, said Cloney, marathon director since 1946, because "without it we simply could not have handled the crowd." The smaller group still included runners from all 50 states and 27 foreign countries.
The downsized field led to some complaints of "elitism" from disappointed applicants who had hoped to rub shoulders with world-class marathoners, at least before the starting gun in suburban Hopkinton or in the underground parking garage in Boston where entrants congregate after the run.
In the wheelchair competition, Curt Brinkman of Provo, Utah, knocked more than 30 minutes off the old Boston mark with a time of 1:55. Brinkman became the first entry (wheelchair or running) to break the two-hour mark for the course.
Raymond Swan from Bermuda won the masters portion of the marathon (for competitors over 40 years of age) with a time of 2:27:29.