With 3½ miles to go in Sunday's Cascade Run Off 15 km. in Portland, Ore., the four leaders crested the last hill. Defending champion Herb Lindsay was working hard, as were Colombia's Domingo Tibaduiza and Greg Meyer of Holliston, Mass. With them, his stride light as a dancer's, was Bill Rodgers.
"I used to be good at this distance," he had said earlier. "I came here for a lot of reasons, but one of them is to get up there with the front guys in a race this short, get back to the old days." Indeed, as he sailed into the lead, Rodgers was reliving his past in more ways than one.
In 1972 he was a conscientious objector, working as an orderly at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. The job was depressing, and the pay seemed so low to Rodgers—a man acutely sensitive to inequities—that it was degrading. He tried to get other menial laborers to join him in a union. When the hospital's administrators learned who had been painting slogans calling for the solidarity of orderlies, Rodgers was out of a job. He couldn't find other public-service employment, so he went on food stamps and, to fill his time with something productive, began running seriously.
Productive that was, because Rodgers went on to win the New York and Boston marathons four times apiece. Last year he made $250,000 from running-related sources, such as his athletic-clothing business and under-the-table appearance and prize money at road races.
But Sunday, as he grimaced with the effort of trying to break away, Rodgers was right back where he'd started, helping to unionize the newest class of marketable athletes, road runners. "I have a lot more to lose, now," he said, "but I've learned a lot since the old hospital days."
Rodgers, Meyer and Lindsay are charter members of the Association of Road Racing Athletes (ARRA), which was born out of a meeting held in one of Rodgers' Boston stores during the week of the 1979 Boston Marathon. The group includes the majority of top U.S. road runners, among them Frank Shorter, Ric Rojas, Duncan Macdonald, Benji Durden, Tony Sandoval, Garry Bjorklund, Patti Catalano, Joan Benoit and Mary Decker.
"Our goals are simple," says ARRA President Don Kardong, who was fourth in the 1976 Olympic marathon. "We're after an open racing system in which prize money is paid directly to the athletes on the basis of performance, in which professionals can race against amateurs and in which athletes can have a meaningful say in the governance of their sport."
To any happy soul who is innocent of the workings of amateur sports, those might not sound like fighting words, but they are. They cut to the heart of the system of administering runners that stretches from the International Olympic Committee at the top, through the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which runs track and field (and, by extension, road running) worldwide, to The Athletics Congress of the U.S. (formerly the AAU). Essentially, the IOC has always told the IAAF that to be eligible for the Olympics, runners may not take money for racing. The IAAF has forced this rule on the AAU-TAC, adding the provision that amateur runners may not even compete against those who take money. These strictures are contained in IAAF Rule 53, which is known as the "contamination" rule. That's important just now, because even as you read this, contagion is spreading across the land.
For at least 60 years there has been a yawning chasm between the letter of these rules and the reality of what's been going on. Athletes have been paid to run races while calling themselves amateur. With equal hypocrisy officials at all levels have looked away from obvious violations because they had more to gain inside an entrenched controlling organization than a reformed one. In its way, this system worked, if you didn't mind heavy quotas of lying.
Then came the boom. Twenty-five million Americans, most of them middle class, began to run and formed a massive base of participation and interest and willingness to buy. Corporations are not insensitive to movements like that, so suddenly there was sponsorship money for hundreds of road races a year. Competition among race organizers to secure the best athletes was so fierce that under-the-table appearance guarantees for the finest runners have rocketed from a top of $3,000 in 1977 to the neighborhood of $30,000 this year.
In light of such sobering sums, the athletes began to examine just where their true interests lay. For most, it seemed best to get out from under the secrecy of the old system. "Money shouldn't go to the names, it should go to the winners," said Bjorklund two years ago. "Let's run for it instead of bargaining for it."
Over the past winter, Kardong and Chuck Galford, the Cascade Run Offs race director and ARRA's counsel, were assigned to assemble an ARRA circuit, and on June 12 they announced a six-race series: the Cascade Run Off 15 km. for a total purse of $50,000 put up by the Nike shoe people; the Nike Marathon in Eugene, Ore., Sept. 13, for $100,000; the Virginia 10-Miler in Lynchburg, Sept. 26, for $50,000 (largely provided by First Colony Life Insurance); an 8-miler in Boston on Oct. 4 for which a purse of at least $35,000 is still being put together; the Lasse Viren Invitational 20 km. on Nov. 15 in Malibu, Calif. for a minimum of $30,000; and the Orange Bowl Festival 10 km. on Dec. 31 in Miami for a $30,000 minimum.
For the inaugural 15 km. (9.3 miles), the ARRA faithful gathered early. Last year's champions, Lindsay and Catalano, were back, and the lists of their well-trained opponents were deep. The primary object of curiosity was TAC's reaction. Just what would its officers see as being in their best interest? In September of 1980 TAC had announced a Grand Prix circuit of its own. The difference between it and the ARRA series being that TAC's payments would go to athletes' clubs—from which, in all likelihood, the money would be funneled to the runners—thus satisfying the ban on racing for money. "It just perpetuates the hypocrisy," said Kardong.
TAC's first event under this format was the $50,000 Diet Pepsi 10 km. on Oct. 4, 1980 in Purchase, N.Y. Thus far, it's the only. ARRA called its runners out, and most of them did not race.
After that experience, the stung TAC said no more Mr. Nice Guy. Perhaps it saw its very existence threatened, for what place is there for an enforcer of amateurism in a professional world? Before the Portland race, TAC Executive Director Ollan Cassell exchanged cables with IAAF General Secretary John Holt in London and was told to interpret Rule 53 as written. Cassell was told that TAC would have to withdraw its sanction of the race unless ARRA provided two things: a list of declared professionals, presumably so they might be prevented from competing elsewhere; and two finish lines for the race, to sustain the fiction that amateurs and pros ran different races.
When Cassell telephoned Galford on Friday morning, Galford said no to both demands. Contamination. All 6,200 amateur entrants in the Portland race would be risking their eligibility.
Cassell, looking further down the line, advised the Oregon Track Club, which traditionally has been a co-sponsor with Nike of the September marathon in Eugene, that if it continued to be associated with the event after the marathon changed to ARRA's format, the Eugene-based club could conceivably jeopardize its chances of staging the 1984 Olympic Trials. The OTC grudgingly removed its name from the Cascade race.
This kind of pressure had a predictable effect on the runners, who, after all, are exuberantly competitive men and women. "When somebody leans on me, that's when I fight hardest," said Rodgers. "If they try to throw some people out as pros, I'll bring out all the evidence I have against the race directors and TAC for complicity in the form of payments."
"What evidence?" he was asked.
"How about copies of checks made out to me from the New York Marathon?"
Yet despite the firebrand talk, Rodgers was in the uncomfortable position of not being sure whether he should take whatever money he won in Portland, thinking the new pros were certain to be given harder treatment than the merely contaminated amateurs. "I'm embarrassed," he said, showing it. "I'm on the spot either way." In the end, wanting to protect his status as he faces the renewal of several endorsement contracts, Rodgers would be the only one of the top finishers to turn down his prize money. Alberto Salazar, the 1980 New York Marathon victor who wasn't running, understood Rodgers' position because his own was similar. "I can still make more as an 'amateur' than if I won all six of ARRA's races," he said.
On the other side was avowed-pro Tom Fleming, who had won $25,000 in the Jordache Los Angeles Pro-Am Marathon in March and was having a great time explaining the joys of professionalism. "I've been able to run amateur races because they can't suspend me without a hearing," he said, "and for some reason the hearing keeps getting postponed. Maybe it's because they know I'm going to bring along every reporter I know. But as a pro I make good money in endorsements without having to pay an extortionate fee to TAC for permission. And when I say I'm a professional road racer, people do a double take and look at me with respect. That's new."
Fleming felt the only danger for the athletes would be if they lost their unity. "The sponsors don't care about IAAF rules or the TAC," he said. "They care about having the best runners. That's us. We've got Ollan Cassell by the tender parts. If we all go different ways, we're not squeezing."
"Yet we don't need unanimity," said 1973 Boston Marathon winner Jon Anderson. "The point of ARRA is to create athletes' freedom. We need a show of strength, but not forced unity."
Allison Roe, this year's Boston Marathon women's champion, simply told her New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association where to get off. "I see it as a moral issue," she said. "We can go under the table for years, but it's not right. What we're doing is right."
Catalano considered the worst-case possibility—not being able to run in the inaugural women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984. "That's just one race and it's too far down the road," she said. "This is now. What do I want to do, make a living at what I love or win a trinket?"
As it happened, Catalano learned racing for money will be no sure thing, as three tough New Zealanders, Anne Audain (50:32.8), Roe (50:57.9) and Lorraine Moller (51:24.2), put her into fourth place (51:55.5). "What will our federation do?" said Audain, whose $10,000 winner's share suddenly made life as a former schoolteacher somewhat more comfortable. "Maybe lobby for new rules because they've just lost their three best runners?"
The men's race turned into a four-way pitched battle. When Rodgers' 4:19 seventh mile shook him loose from no one, Lindsay went ahead, then Meyer. With 500 yards to go, Meyer sprinted, catching Lindsay off guard. Lindsay closed all down the stretch but fell 10 yards short. Meyer's time on the hilly course was a spectacular 43:18.9, more than 30 seconds better than Lindsay's course record. Lindsay finished in 43:23.5, Tibaduiza at 43:23.6, and Rodgers in 43:25.0, a personal best by nearly a minute. Fourteen men broke 45 minutes, an astounding depth of performance.
"The cause was right," panted Meyer, who accepted the $10,000 winner's check but probably will put it into escrow in hopes of maintaining his amateur standing. "I felt good the whole way, even about my decision at nine last night to take the money."
"What happens next?" he was asked.
"Some messy transition stage," he said. "I'm going to fight to keep my eligibility if I have to spend the whole 10 grand doing it. Some of us are going to get kicked out, but eventually it's going to improve the sport. It really is."
Moller, the third-place woman, took a more pensive view. "It seems a little like losing your virginity," she said. "Maybe it has been something you cared about, but then it's gone, and suddenly you sense, hey, there's a whole new world in front of you."