In the last few New York City Marathons, elite runners have headed for the finish like characters assembling for the finale in 42nd Street. We all knew the plot, and the principals looked vaguely familiar, though we couldn't quite recall their names.
But Sunday's production in the Big Apple featured bankable stars, a cast of 23,463 and a rival producer who doubled in the role of out-of-town critic. The stars with the most marquee value, Steve Jones, a Welshman who three years ago ran the best time ever on U.S. soil, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, the American who won the 1984 Olympic gold medal, had never run New York before. Jones was triumphant in his debut, winning the men's title in a virtuoso 2:08:20, just seven seconds shy of Alberto Salazar's '81 course record. But Samuelson was upstaged by Norway's remarkable Grete Waitz, who won her ninth New York marathon—a record number of victories by a runner in the same marathon—and hinted it may have been her final curtain call in New York.
"No one doubted this was the strongest field in our 19-year history," said New York marathon director Fred Lebow. That was because New York reportedly had lured the top runners with whopping guarantees.
Most of the appearance money came from sponsor John Hancock Financial Services, which also revived the Boston Marathon in 1986 with an infusion of cash. Hancock had contracts with Jones, Samuelson and Mark Nenow, the U.S. record holder at 10,000 meters, whose eighth-place finish on Sunday was the best by an American man.
Estimates of Hancock's prerace payout went as high as $500,000, the figure bandied about by Bob Bright, promoter of the Chicago Marathon, which had been run the previous week. The disgruntled Bright claims Hancock is out to bludgeon the Windy City's race, which offers more prize money and a faster course but lower appearance fees than the New York marathon does. "Hancock has paid out all that appearance money solely to keep those runners out of Chicago," Bright insisted on Saturday. "It uses Mafia-style tactics. It makes runners offers they can't refuse."
Bright said he offered Samuelson an $80,000 appearance fee, with incentives that could have earned her up to $350,000. But he says Hancock doubled the guarantee for her to run in New York.
Hancock's sports marketing consultant, Jack Mahoney, called Bright's figures "outlandish." And Lebow predictably downplayed the bidding war. "It's a healthy competition," he says. "Gimbels was good for Macy's."
But Gimbels went out of business.
"So did the Chicago Marathon," said Lebow.
That race folded in 1986 after its main sponsor, Beatrice, dropped out. It was back in business two weeks ago with a new benefactor, Heileman's Old Style Beer, and a less stellar field. Alejandro Cruz of Mexico won the men's title in a startling 2:08:57 and Lisa Weidenbach of the U.S. won the women's in 2:29:17.