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

Bill Rodgers, who won the race, sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union, for the fourth consecutive year, did not accept the first prize money, reported to be $10,000. However, sources have 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 made to top runners. This is believed to be the first instance in a major American road race of a structured prize money system where runners were paid for how they ran, not whether they ran.

Some of the runners interviewed said they had been informed about the possibility 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 at all.

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 at 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 Boston Marathon last April.

"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 do 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 Athletics 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 "range from many things," 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 U.S. Olympic Committee, said, "The matter of eligibility (in the Olympics) is the responsibility of the national governing body, in this case, the Athletics 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 miminal 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 executive said. First prize for the men was supposed to be $10,000, though Rodgers did not accept it. First place for the woman was supposed to be $5,000.

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 yesterday.

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 $1,000 per place, so that the 10th man and fifth woman would each receive $1,000.

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 $6,500 to $7,000.

Fleming said that when he spoke with Lebow about the prize money structure last spring, Lebow had spelled out that second place would not be $9,000. "There should be a difference between first and second," Fleming said.

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.

Bjorklund said, "I talked to four or five people who did run in the money and just out of the money and it (the prize money system) worked but some people came up short. I don't put that burden on the Road Runners. The athletes never asked when, where or how it would work."

Bjorklund said he had never seen a check, but added, "I know the money was paid."

According to the source, around 20 of the top male marathoners were informed of the system before the race. They were told, the source said, "if they were dissatisfied with the expense money they were supposed to get. Those who were dissatisfied were advised what the situation would be if they did run well."

None of the women runners were told, the source added.

But 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 in running circles.

Jeff Darman, 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."

According to race organizers, the escalating fees that top runners can command were the impetus for the prize money system. Sources say that Rodgers asked for about $15,000 to run in New York last year.

"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 the executive. "We felt it was highway robbery."

One race official said, "Fred (Lebow) talked to some of us about it last August. He said, 'Rodgers wants $15,000. That's obscene.' And I said, 'No, it's not. It's a free market. You get what you can.' Why don't you say if you come in first you get $13,000, and $10,000 for second?' He said, 'A lot of peoples have suggested a variation on that.' And some variation on 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."

The only thing that would be more equitable, he said, is open running. "That's here," he said. "It just has to come on top of the table."

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 organization have a lot to lose too. Two years ago, the IAAF ruled that amateur athletes could endorse products if the producer was a sponsor of the national government body.

Six Americans 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.

"It's extortion," said Darman. "They blink their eyes at the rules when it suits them."

A spokesman for the Athletics Congress said, "Like any other new program, it draws criticism. It's all a part of the transition from amateur to professionalism."

"The system serves the purpose of the people in power," Darman said. "You have so many organizations perpetuated not because they provide a service but because they operate out of fear. They can always take away the one thing they control: the amateur status. It demeans the athlete and forces them to bargain under the table."

Many people in the running community believe that with the Olympics in Moscow seemingly out of the question for American athletes, the time is right to push for open running.

"I think there is going to be a place for professional prize money in racing within the next year," said Kathrine Switzer, who became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon 13 years ago and is now head of the Avon running circuit for women. "The boycott has raised all kinds of questions about the status of amateur athletes."

One runner who received his prize money last year in New York under the table asked if he believes he might get it over the table next fall.

We're on the verge of it," he said. "But who knows? We may all go down in flames."