How The Boston Marathon Went Pro And Outran The Myth Of Amateurism

Bill Rodgers, 66 and still frisky, strained a hamstring back in January but it's getting better. When we spoke earlier this month, he was thinking he could run/walk Monday's Boston Marathon. "I'm toying with the idear," he said in Bostonese.

Rodgers loves the Boston Marathon and its 117­-year history, and he's proud to be a part of that history, having won the race four times between 1975 and 1980, setting the American record for the distance twice along the way. That's how he earned the nickname Boston Billy. He's also pleased that this year's world­-class field will be chasing a prize purse of $806,000, the winner taking home $150,000. He's pleased, and maybe feeling a touch bittersweet, because the Boston Marathon was the last major marathon to offer cash prizes, in 1986. Meaning Rodgers did not win a penny for his four hard­-fought victories.

His long career (he's run 17 Boston Marathons, including an impressive 2:20 finish at age 42) spans the evolution of elite road racing. He was there when the sport was the province of a few freak-­flag­-flying eccentrics, and he's still in it now that the sport has become a collection of extra-­lean, corporate­-sponsored professionals who sell shoes, fill hotel rooms, and attract TV cameras on their way from Hopkinton to Boston.

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The story of that evolution is the story of any amateur sport that has professionalized in every sense except in how it pays its athletes. It's the NCAA's story, for instance. As with other amateur-­in­-name-­only sports, competitive running clung fondly to the self-­serving belief that performing for money would only cheapen the prize. That was all well and good until the athletes watched the ticket­-takers heading to the bank.

The evolution of road running is also the story of those athletes, agitators like Bill Rodgers, who recognized the Victorian ideal of amateurism for what it was—a fig leaf designed to protect the people making money off the glories of athletic competition from the broader competition of the marketplace. The runners, they had a better idear.

The Boston Marathon was established by the Boston Athletic Association in 1897, modeled after the previous year's Olympic competition. They aimed for a gathering of the best amateur runners in the world. The key word there is "amateur." In the spirit of the Olympics, runners of the Boston Marathon were supposed to hammer out 26.2 miles for the love of the sport, for the thrill of competition and the glory of human achievement. And they did. You couldn't rightly claim to be a runner unless you'd run the Boston Marathon, partly because it was the only marathon of any repute for quite some time.

Running marathons up until the late 1960s was a quixotic affair undertaken by dudes with time on their hands. Think: Chariots of Fire. The Boston Marathon already had 70 years of proud tradition under its belt when the first woman, Kathrine Switzer, entered in 1967. Race officials tried to take her out, physically. The people at the BAA did not deal well with change.

But things were changing all around them. Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon and the health­-consciousness of the time (granola! Earth shoes!) touched off the running boom. Other cities established marathons­­—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, heck, even Cleveland­­—and competition to lure top runners emerged. Boston, though, was comfortable in its supremacy.

A good, though not entirely dedicated, runner in high school and college, Rodgers quit running after graduation, and became a long-­haired conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He smoked and partied, again, without a lot of conviction, and was fired from his low-­paying hospital messenger job for trying to organize a union. That was 1972, the year of Shorter's gold. With not much but time, he started running. A lot. In two­-a-day workouts, he regularly logged 130 miles per week. In 1973, he entered the Boston Marathon, started too fast, and dropped out. In 1974, he finished in 2:19, good for 14th place. Encouraged by that, he sometimes pushed his weekly mileage to 200. Rodgers won the 1975 Boston Marathon in an American record time of 2:09, wearing a Sharpie­-lettered T-­shirt ("GBTC," for Greater Boston Track Club), cheap gardening gloves, and a pair of Nikes that were a little big, sent to him just before the race by the soon­-to-­be­ legendary Steve Prefontaine. At the time, running was a counter­-cultural act practiced mainly by hippies and health nuts. In these raffish surroundings, Rodgers was right at home.

As an Olympic sport, running came under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union (which became The Athletics Congress and eventually today's USA Track & Field). While some countries like Finland and Russia had state­-sponsored running programs, athletes in the U.S. worked jobs to support themselves. Until late 1977, when he was already ranked one of the top marathoners in the world, Rodgers worked full-­time as a special­-ed teacher. He ran those mega-miles on his lunch hour and again after work. To compete in the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, he left on a Thursday, flew back on Sunday and was back in the classroom on Monday. Race directors skirted the amateur issue by offering to cover top runners' travel and food expenses, and perhaps slipping them an envelope of cash if they won. There was no official prize or appearance money; runners were not allowed to have agents; and shoe company sponsorships were few and far between.

Money was certainly being made on the burgeoning sport—by race organizers who got entry fees from growing numbers of recreational runners, by shoe companies making running gear, and by cities drawing increasing numbers of race participants. So an underground economy took root. Fred Lebow, race director of the NYC Marathon, sought to guarantee the success of his first adventurous five­-borough route in 1976, so he paid Rodgers and Frank Shorter, the two biggest names in marathoning, $2,000 each to run—under the table, of course. Though by 1977, Rodgers was earning a good living from his illicit earnings, he chafed at the practice personally and thought it was bad for the sport.

"I felt these under­-the-­table payments were demeaning," he said. "We were not criminals. We were not Mr. Madoff. It was humiliating to have to beg for money. We were building the sport for the public, for cities, for shoe companies. Everyone else was cashing in except athletes. The whole thing about the poverty­-stricken athlete running for the love of the sport was bogus. Baseball players loved the sport too, but they could earn a living from their efforts."

He didn't have to worry about payment of any kind from the folks at the BAA: They were above such tawdry commercialism, confident their unassailable reputation would continue to allow them to recruit top­-notch competition, even though other marathons quietly offered financial enticements.

"I continued to run Boston, even though they didn't give appearance or prize money, as it was the highest level road race in my proximity," said Rodgers, who quit his teaching job and opened a running store in November 1977.

Living under constant threat of Olympic ineligibility if they accepted prize money, runners were hit hard by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics. In an attempt to force a confrontation with the Olympic Committee about "shamateurism," a group of 40 top runners, Rodgers among them, formed the Association of Road Racing Athletes. In 1981, the ARRA organized the first openly professional road race, the Cascade Run Off 15K in Portland, Ore., offering a $50,000 prize purse. Accepting the prize money would of course render one ineligible for an Olympic team.

Frank Shorter, an Olympian and a lawyer, quickly brokered a compromise—a trust fund administered by The Athletics Congress in which runners could deposit their winnings, withdrawing it by written request for training purposes. Within a few years, the trust system would be eliminated and not only could runners deposit prize money directly into their bank accounts without sacrificing Olympic eligibility, but professional basketball and hockey players could now participate in the Olympics.

Rodgers, recalling the early tectonic movements within the sport, quoted an old Dylan lyric. "Like in 'Ballad of a Thin Man'—something is happening here, but you don't know what it is," he said. "Some of us from the ARRA talked to Fred Lebow about going openly pro with the NYC Marathon. The mayor, Ed Koch, didn't want commercialism because he didn't want to have to pay the police. Of course, Koch knows running like I know politics. Fred, though, had vision. He knew if there was prize money, the media would pay attention, people would pay attention. It would bring huge dollars to the city."

In 1982, the NYC Marathon put up a trust-­fund­-approved $150,000 purse; the Chicago Marathon raised the pot with $250,000. NYC's first no-­strings-­attached prize purse was in 1984.

Other races got in on the professional action to lure top runners, build their reputation, and increase recreational runners' participation. Up-­and-­coming distance runner Dick Beardsley earned $8,000 for placing second at the 1981 Houston Marathon, but Boston's still­-robust reputation led him and homeboy Alberto Salazar to sign on for the still­-virginal 1982 Boston Marathon. The resulting mano­-a-­mano showdown was one of marathoning's greatest moments, the basis of John Brant's Duel in the Sun. Though it was viewed, written about and talked about by millions of people; though it inspired unspeakable numbers of gangly teens to go for a run; though it was probably the peak of both men's running careers, they did it for free.

"I don't know what Alberto got for running Boston [that year] but the only thing I got was a free entry!" Beardsley said via email. "I think the entry fee back then was $8. New Balance [Beardsley's sponsor] flew me out and put me up in the Sheraton and made sure I had enough money to eat."

The world's pre­-eminent marathons at the time­­—NYC, Chicago, Berlin, and Fukuoka­­—were all held in the fall, but the London Marathon, established in 1981, was scheduled one week earlier in the spring than Boston, in direct competition. Organized from the very first with corporate sponsors, the London Marathon quickly adopted prize money.

"We [the members of the ARRA] talked to the BAA about professionalism but they turned their backs on us," Rodgers said. "The leadership was not cognizant of the changes happening within the sport and defied changes to the amateur rules. They wouldn't even listen to Will Cloney."

Cloney, a former sportswriter, was the Boston Marathon race director from 1947 to 1982. As other races became fully professional enterprises with sponsors, paid staff, and prize and appearance money, Cloney could see the writing on the wall, but the BAA held firm­­—money would not taint their purist ideal. On his own, Cloney made a deal with a Boston lawyer giving him the right to sign commercial sponsors for the race, and even though sponsorship money came in, the BAA sued the lawyer saying the contract was illegal. They let Cloney go as race director.

"I didn't run Boston in 1984 and 1985 because they wouldn't pay me and there was no depth of competition," said Rodgers. "The race was really foundering."

Brit Geoff Smith won the 1984 Boston Marathon. According to a race report, Smith literally walked across the finish line to emphasize the point that there was no competition.

Rodgers and other top runners appealed to then­-Mayor Ray Flynn, pointing out the race's value to the city and its imminent demise. "He saw that we had something big here, but it had to change," said Rodgers. "The marathon was Boston's only international sports event, the oldest race in world, and it was in real danger of becoming insignificant, of going away."

Finally, the pressure to go pro that had been building since 1982 came to a head: In December 1984, the BAA brought on Guy Morse, a public relations specialist, as an administrator on a six­-month trial basis. A little hesitant to give too much power to a newcomer, the BAA waited a year before bestowing the title of race director. Morse was the first paid staff member, and he ended up staying for 28 years.

"It became clear to me and others that competition among big-­city marathons was drawing elite athletes away," Morse said. "I remember meeting with Mayor Flynn, who was a friend of mine, and Rodgers and some other runners. They didn't even care how much prize money there was—it was just the idea of it. The purists on the board were resistant for all the right reasons—they didn't want to screw around with the race's pedigree. But I was able to convince them that prize money was necessary to restore the race to the top of the heap. Eventually they came around to the idea that we could change some things and maintain the traditions and community spirit that had supported it for 80 years."

Once the decision had been made to offer prize money, Morse solicited corporate sponsors, but his long list of stipulations quickly narrowed the list to one—­­John Hancock Financial Services. Hancock and the BAA signed a milestone 10­-year partnership that has since been renewed twice.

"It was absolutely fundamental that the name, Boston Marathon, could not change. It would not become the John Hancock Boston Marathon," Morse said. "Hancock also understood that it [the marathon] was not going to be recreated, but rather restored."

The Boston Marathon became a fully professional production in 1986, Rodgers earning $12,500 for his fourth-­place finish that year. Prize money plus the race's prestige was the magic recipe. The course record has been lowered seven times since 1986, including the world's fastest marathon time, 2:03.02, run in 2011 by Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai (the Boston Marathon is ineligible for official world records because it's point­-to-­point and has a slight elevation drop). It draws A­listers from around the world, and is one of six marathons in the World Marathon Majors series that offers an annual million-­dollar prize.

The Boston Marathon has held onto some of its purist traditions—no pacers, for one thing. "I like that Boston doesn't allow pacers," said Rodgers. "It's a real race, not a fake event. I think it's more legitimate to just go from the gun without pacers."

More uniquely Boston features—the Monday/Patriot's Day running of the race, and the fact that all entrants must post a qualifying mark—have not diminished the event's popularity with the rest of the pack, as fields have increased from 4,904 in 1986 to about 27,000 today.

The key was separating what made the Boston Marathon distinct and what made it merely an anachronism. A professionalized marathon, as it turned out, was a better marathon. The cash prizes brought in the best runners from around the globe, ensuring that no race would ever again be won by someone walking through the tape. If that meant that U.S. runners would be frozen out at the expense of East Africans—there has not been a single U.S. winner, man or woman, of the Boston Marathon since 1985—well, so be it. Better to be a truly world-­class event rather than one that only advertises itself as such. Rodgers has no problem with the ongoing East African hegemony. "That's the way it should be," he said. "They are the best in the world right now."