Guy Morse, the new administrator of the Boston Athletic Association, sat in his cluttered ninth-floor office, a view of Boston Harbor out his window, heavy morning traffic honking below. He looked a bit beleaguered. "I knew what kind of problems to expect when I took this job," he said. "We're going through some growing pains." But with the 89th Boston Marathon just five days off, Morse and the BAA, the longtime organizer of the race, were facing an embarrassing list of troubles: a continuing erosion in race entries (to 5,900, down 22% from 1982), an absence of big-name runners, a couple of near-hoaxes, an ongoing lawsuit and some mounting legal bills that may soon reach $1 million.
The sudden decline of the world's oldest annual—and most colorfully historic—marathon cast a pall over Boston that lasted through Monday's race. "It's becoming a race with a million-dollar audience and a 25-cent field," griped marathon-watcher Tommy Leonard, a bartender at the traditional runners' hangout, the Eliot Lounge. And sure enough, though the usual throngs lined the route from Hopkinton to downtown Boston, what they saw was a talent-thin event that Geoff Smith of England won by more than five minutes in 2:14:05, despite excruciating leg cramps. Women's winner Lisa Larsen Weidenbach of Marblehead, Mass., who had said she wanted to compete at Boston "before it became a Fun Run." crossed the line in a relatively plodding 2:34:06, the only woman under 2:40. What lingered afterward, alas, were basic questions about the future of the race.
In brief, these are the causes of Boston's decline:
•Money. The BAA, adhering to its proud tradition of unsullied amateurism, has refused to pay expense, appearance or prize money to attract elite runners. So it gets what it pays for. Even a local favorite like four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers (who claims, despite BAA denials, that he and 1983 winner Greg Meyer were each offered $5,000 to run this year's race and appear at a few area clinics) chose to skip Boston in favor of a May 5 New Jersey marathon that would give him substantial appearance money.
April 22, 1985
•Competition. Once Boston had no springtime rivals. Now it competes with at least six other major international marathons and several lucrative road races scheduled in April and May.
•The downside of tradition. Despite its marvelous crowds and fast course, Boston was never known as a good race for runners. It lacked a basic appreciation for its participants. To its credit, Boston has in the last few years become a very well-run race, but its legacy of arrogance hasn't yet died.
•The Cloney-Medoff aftermath. In late 1981 Will Cloney, then the BAA president and marathon director, tried to open up the race to big-time sponsorship. He signed a contract making Boston attorney Marshall Medoff and his company. International Marathons, Inc., the exelusive negotiating agent. The contract set off a furor—the BAA board said Cloney had acted without authority by giving Medoff not only a sweetheart deal but also virtual control of the race—and it was later voided by the courts. Cloney resigned, mostly for health reasons, and a debate over "commercialization" of the marathon raged. "It's been commercial since the Prudential Center opened [in 1965] and said if you move the finish line to us we'll give you $1,500 and some office space," says Medoff.
The controversy has brought burdensome legal fees. According to BAA financial statements, the association amassed $546,710 in legal bills in 1982 and '83 alone, leaving it nearly a quarter of a million dollars in debt going into 1984. This summer it's likely that legal costs will approach $1 million. "If they stopped paying the lawyers and started paying the runners, they'd be better off," says Cloney.
Into this mess stepped Morse, 33, hired last December as the first full-time salaried employee in the history of the marathon. Morse, a former Prudential p.r. man, helped direct finish-line operations for 10 years before taking the BAA post. Morse cites this year's distribution to elite runners of 12 free and 13 cut-rate rooms donated by a hotel as a first step, perhaps, toward eventual defraying of top runners' full expenses.
The BAA was lucky to escape embarrassment just days before this year's race when problems arose with two of the six top entrants—Mark Plaatjes of South Africa and Carlos Godoy of Colombia. As a South African, Plaatjes is banned from international competition, and it was discovered that Godoy submitted a phony qualifying time with his application. Boston, of course, made Rosie Ruiz famous in 1980, when she jumped into the race near the finish line and "won" the women's title. That hoax seems so frivolous now, with the Boston Marathon itself seemingly losing its legs on Heartbreak Hill.