1980 Boston Globe: New York Marathoners Offered Cash Prizes


April 7, 1980

Prize money totaling about $50,000 was paid to some top finishers in last year’s New York Marathon in direct violation of amateur athletic rules.

Bill Rodgers, who won the race sanctioned by The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for the fourth consecutive year, did not accept the first prize money, reported to be $10,000. However, sources told the Washington Post that Rodgers received about $10,000 guaranteed expense money from race sponsors.

Over the years, there have been many reports of under-the-table payments to top runners. This is believed to be the first instance in a major American road race of a structured prize money system under which runners were paid for how they ran, not whether they ran.

Some of the runners interviewed said they had been informed of the prize money system by race organizers. Others said they had heard rumors of it from other runners. And still others said they knew nothing about it.

Privately, two runners who finished among the leaders confirmed that the system existed and that payments had been made.

The corporate sponsors of the 1979 New York City Marathon included Perrier (The Great Waters of France, Co.), Manufacturers Hanover Bank and “The Runner” magazine.

While it could not be determined which of the sponsors paid for the prize money, one runner said his prize money check came from Perrier.

“It’s true that I didn’t receive any so-called prize money,” Rodgers said. “I had an arrangement before the race to get a certain amount in expenses. I was aware of it (the prize money). There was a lot of talk on the grapevine. It was pretty widely circulated among runners. Different officials of the (New York) Road Runners (the race organizers) mentioned it, that there was this possibility, months and months before.”

Another marathoner, Tom Fleming, of Bloomfield, N.J., said he was contacted by race director Fred Lebow sometime after the 1979 Boston Marathon.

“It was one of the rare times he called me,” Fleming said. “He put it as a question: How would you be motivated if this was to happen.’ And then he came back to the fact that this was the way it was going to be.”

Gary Bjorklund, who did not run in the New York Marathon last year, said: “They (the N.Y. Road Runners) went to a lot of athletes and asked how best to structure it for the athletes. I was approached in that context. I had some good conversations with the people at Road Runners. I 100 percent support a purse. Maybe two or three people have the right to expect money just to show up. The rest should have to run for it.”

Asked about the conversations with Fleming, Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Club, said: “Either he misunderstood or you misunderstood him.”

Asked about the prize money structure, Lebow said: “I’ve heard the rumors myself. I’ve heard the same rumors. I have not given any money to athletes other than expense money, though I believe that the time has come for serious thought on the subject.”

Lebow says he intends to push for open prize money at the 1980 New York Marathon. He envisions a $100,000 first prize.

“The fact of life is in athletics, track and sports, there has always been some kind of payment in some form under the table. The time has come to put this on the table.

Many members of the running community believe that long distance running is in the transition period between amateurism and professionalism, the way tennis was before it went open in 1968.

Still, according to Ollan Cassell, head of the Athletic Congress, which oversees long distance running in the United States, if the allegations are true, the athletes would be in violation of current International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) and AAU rules. The consequences could be severe, he said.

Asked if suspension was a possibility, he said: “Yes, that’s a possibility.”

Asked if the athletes could be barred from the Olympics, he said: “That’s a consequence of being banned.”

“If it’s as flagrant as you say it is, then certainly, it will be looked into,” he said. “Sure, we have to investigate, if it’s true.”

Col. F. Don Miller, executive director of the US Olympic Committee said: “The matter of eligibility (in the Olympics) is the responsibility of the national governing body, in this case, the Athletic Congress. Of course, there is the chance of jeopardizing the amateur status of the individuals involved unless some recognition was provided by the governing body that I’m not aware of. There are certain procedures where individuals may get minimal financial remuneration.”

The remuneration in New York was not minimal. According to an executive at one of the companies sponsoring the race, the plan was to award cash prizes in a descending scale to the top 10 men and the top five women.

The total amount allocated for prize money was about $65,000, the sponsor said. First prize for the men was supposed to be $10,000, although Rodgers did not accept it. First place for the women was supposed to be $5000.

Patti Lyons, who finished fourth among the women said: “With or without quotes, I don’t know what you are talking about. Maybe I didn’t finish high enough.”

Grete Waitz of Norway finished first among the women for the second straight year. She could not be reached for comment.

One runner who finished in the money said he received a check in the mail

from Perrier about a month and a half after the race. (His travel expense money did not arrive until March).

“They fixed it up so everyone is safe,” the runner said. “The document looks like I did some contract work for Perrier. That’s the way it looked when I saw it.”

Sally Nesstler, national special events coordinator for Perrier, said: “We didn’t pay for first, second, or third. We can get into a lot of trouble like that. It’s not worth it. As a sponsor, I knew nothing about it.”

Several runners said they believed the scale was supposed to begin at $10,000 for first place and descend in order by $1000 per place, so that the 10th man and fifth woman would each receive $1000.

But sources say the scale did not work that way. “It was left murky, intentionally so. They only spelled out the first and the last figures,” said one runner who finished in the money. That runner said he had received only half of what he expected according to his place finish. “I didn’t complain,” the runner said, “I had no recourse. Besides it was a lot more than I normally get, a $200 honorarium.”

Sources say that second-place money was supposed to be $6500 to $7000.

Kirk Pfeffer of Colorado, who lost the lead to Rodgers at 23.2 miles and finished second, said he had not been informed about the prize money before the race and did not receive any after the race. “I was given the money I needed to get over there and back,” he said.

The arrangement, which Rodgers called “unique” in a sport where under-the- table money is an accepted, if dangerous, way of life, was widely known about in running circles.

Jeff Daman, former president of the Road Runners Club of America, said: “One guy in the race told me that the prize money system accounted for both the good times and why everyone ran so hard.”

“Most people close to the sport know that track runners and top long distance runners have been getting under-the-table payments in the thousands of dollars for years and years,” Darman added. “The only difference here is that the payments were raised to a different level of sophistication instead of just being paid to show up.”

“Certain athletes demand such a high price just for showing up that we thought it would be more equitable to let them show up and win,” said one organizer. “We felt it was highway robbery.”

One member of the executive committee of the N.Y. Road Runners Club said: “Fred (Lebow) talked to some of us about it last August. He said: Rodgers wants $15,000. That’s ridiculous.’ And I said: No, it’s not, it’s a free market. Why don’t you have prize money like $13,000 for first, $10,000 for second.?’ He said: Other people have said the same thing.’ And some variation of that was used.”

Bjorklund said: “This is the most equitable way to structure rewards for running. I definitely think everyone was worth what they got. I’m a proponent of running for dollars.”

In the meantime, runners chafe at the inconsistencies of what was once known as “shamateurism.”

They help perpetuate what Darman calls “the fiction of amateurism” because of the fear they will lose their amateur status and because “some have a lot (of money) to lose,” said Bjorklund.

But, said, Darman, the amateur athletic organizations have a lot to lose too. Two years ago, the IAAF ruled that amateur athletes could endorse products if the product was a sponsor of the national governing body.

Six American athletes, including Frank Shorter, now endorse products, and the Athletics Congress receives $25,000 for each product endorsement. In turn, Shorter signed a contract as a public relations representative for the Hilton Hotels.

A spokesman for the Athletics Congress said: “Like any other new program, it draws criticism. It’s all a part of the transition from amateurism to professionalism.

Copyright 1980, 2001 Globe Newspaper Company

Author: Jane Leavy, Washington Post