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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.