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Top Runners Earn Top Dollar On Reputation

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page E04

After running 26.2 miles along the River Thames, across Tower Bridge and past Buckingham Palace, the men's and women's winners of today's 25th London Marathon will each receive a prize of $55,000. The sport's biggest personality, meantime -- British icon Paula Radcliffe -- could earn a payday of 10 times that amount without even winning the race.

As marathons have continued to evolve into a big business over the past decade, race officials have used increasingly robust appearance fees to lure the sport's top echelon of runners, ensuring greater media coverage, satisfying spectators and sponsors and helping London and Chicago join Boston and New York as the premier marathon events of the year.

Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who painfully but famously dropped out of the Olympic Marathon, now commands a $500,000 appearance fee. "People recognize celebrity," said New York City Marathon director Mary Wittenberg. (Alastair Grant -- AP)

Ten or 12 marathon superstars can command appearance fees of $200,000 and up at the most lucrative marathons, several agents and race officials said. And in the leadup to the most important weekend of the marathon calendar -- with London's race today and Boston's tomorrow -- longtime observers said London's aggressive use of appearance fees has helped assemble fields that often surpass those at Boston.

Relying on a fast and attractive course and perhaps the biggest elite athletes budget in the world -- at least $2.6 million this year, including prize money -- London earned commitments from the men's Olympic champion, the 2003 men's world champion, four of the seven fastest women in marathon history and the four fastest men in marathon history, one of whom later dropped out.

"London for sure in the last five years is paying more than ever," said one leading European agent. "Everybody's looking at London this year because they have a stellar race, because all the best athletes are there. If you don't pay them, they don't come."

And so Ethiopian distance legend Haile Gebrselassie was scheduled to receive an appearance fee of about $400,000 to run in London before he dropped out with an injury, his Dutch-based agent, Jos Hermens, said. Radcliffe will likely receive approximately $500,000 to run today's race, several industry sources said. Olympic medalists can expect an appearance fee of around $200,000 to run in the highest paying marathons, Chicago Marathon Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski said.

London, like most major marathons, also offers publicized bonuses for particular times, including an additional $125,000 for setting a world record. Boston offers $575,000 in total prize money and bonuses for course or world records; its officials will not provide details on their elite athletes budget.

Boston race officials have defended the quality of their recent fields, but also say they will not enter into a bidding war with London, instead counting on their race's unique reputation and 109-year history.

"We don't have intentions of spending that kind of money -- we've never had to do that and we feel we don't have to do that, because we're able to recruit a very competitive field each and every year," said Guy L. Morse, the Boston Athletic Association's executive director. "It's an evolving environment that we're all operating under, and it's a maturing sport. You're going to see more debate in this regard: where the money is best placed to do the most effective good. . . . [London's officials] have to make a mark for themselves. We feel we've made our mark, and we're going to maintain that high mark we've had."

When Pinkowski took over Chicago's struggling race in 1990, he called a request for a $50,000 appearance fee "ludicrous." He laughed when recently reminded of that comment.

"I wish some of these athletes were asking for $50,000, that would be great," said Pinkowski, who said his budget for attracting elite athletes is between $2 million and $2.5 million, likely tops among domestic marathons. "There's a business aspect to it. The big events want the best athletes and the best athletes realize that. There's a supply and demand; it's economics."

Appearance fees are almost always kept private, and can be cut by as much as 50 percent if athletes drop out before finishing or run slower than specified time limits.

Advocates of appearance fees say the increasing payments have further professionalized a sport in which top athletes often race just twice a year and can lose their drawing power after a few poor results. The big money has also prompted leading runners to leave the track and take on the marathon distance at a younger age, several industry veterans said, especially since shorter road races rarely offer comparable appearance fees. Speculation about 22-year-old Ethiopian 5,000- and 10,000-meter star Kenenisa Bekele's first foray into marathons has already started, with several sources predicting he could command a $500,000 appearance fee.

The growth in fees appears to have primarily benefited the top tier of runners -- "I think it's like a lot of sports, you're kind of split more into the haves and have-nots," one American agent said. Some, including Boston's Morse, would prefer to see the sport's financial expansion occur in prize money rather than appearance fees.

But appearance dollars are not handed out solely for fast times, which is one reason they are certain to continue. Regardless of her results, Radcliffe's presence at a race ensures a horde of British media members. Her last-minute commitment to the 2004 New York City Marathon -- which she won -- lured virtually every major British paper and brought live television coverage on BBC.

"People recognize celebrity, people recognize the power of a star," said New York City's race director Mary Wittenberg, who said her race's elite athletes budget was in the low seven figures but declined to say what Radcliffe was paid to appear. "I'd put all our eggs in the basket to have Paula back here again. . . . She gave us a lift unlike anything else we've done in the last five years."

The presence of American stars, such as Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, can also spike interest, especially for domestic marathons.

And the interest -- which is often dependent on print media and television appearances, according to race officials -- can then justify the sport's sponsorship dollars. Flora, a consumer foods manufacturer and the title sponsor of the London Marathon since 1996, calculated a return of tens of millions of dollars on its investment after Radcliffe's 2003 victory in a world-record time was front-page news, according to a London Marathon spokesman.

With interest depending on compelling story lines that can attract such exposure, races will often spend more to bring back defending champions or athletes with particularly noteworthy backgrounds.

Brazil's Vanderlei de Lima, for example, was a virtual unknown outside the running world before he was knocked off the course by a spectator during the Olympic Marathon in Athens. He went on to win bronze, and has since seen his appearance fees increase eight- or ten-fold, according to Hermens, his agent. Americans can likewise command fees out of proportion to their résumés because the American public has often been lukewarm to foreign stars, several agents and race directors said.

"It's not just the times they run, it's the image they bring to an event," said Ray Flynn, who represents Kastor and Alan Culpepper, one of the top American men in Boston's field. "There are athletes who bring something to a race, and I would like to see them continue to be rewarded more than the athletes who do not."

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