The Boston Marathon is not the biggest but it is the oldest marathon in the United States. All it has going for it is tradition, said one of yesterday's 7, 600 runners. What will it have going for it if that tradition is abandoned?
The question was of more than local interest as local boy Alberto Salazar, the world record-holder, won the laurel wreath in his first Boston try. And that laurel wreath is part of the reason for the rest of the nation to enter the debate over the Boston Marathon's future.
Does America really want this 86th marathon to become, as now seems likely, the last without money prizes, the last held on Patriot's Day, the last in which the tail of television and corporate sponsorship did not wag the dog of history? Wouldn't the country like to preserve at least one major sporting event from the creeping commercialism that is overtaking the Boston Marathon?
One argument is that people who work at running are laborers worthy of their hire like anyone else. Of course. But no prize list would be likely to reach down to more than a few of the thousands running. And, even in crass financial terms, no prize would mean as much to the winner as the spin-off business gains from being known as such. As Bill Rodgers, with his athletic enterprises, can testify.
Then there is the argument for making a TV killing by switching the marathon from its familiar April Monday on the Massachusetts Patriot's Day holiday to a Sunday when the national network audience would be larger. But wouldn't the event then lose some of the very historical mystique that makes it newsworthy?
Possibly a few top runners would skip a
Boston Marathon with no prizes or expense money -- with no more going for it than tradition. But suppose only the next to the top came, the ones on the way up. And would the thousands of slower runners stay away, the ones for whom the marathon exists as surely as for Salazar and yesterday's winner among the women, Charlotte Teske?
For most of these runners the contest is not so much with each other as with themselves. They have had the satisfaction of accomplishment for its own sake. They have had the unsullied amateur feeling of being part of an event run by volunteers like themselves, whose director could say until this year that none of the runners received money either over or under the table.
When something works for more than eight decades, why fix it?