If Bill Rodgers, the two-time winner of the Boston Marathon, and who has won an unprecedented 20 of his last 22 races since May 1977, were a touring golf, tennis, bowling or race car professional, his record would have earned at least $1 million in prize money. But all Rodgers has are a few medals, ribbons and some leftover change from the mildly inflated expense accounts given him by race sponsors.
However comforting it might be to imagine Bill Rodgers happy in his poverty and taking spiritual solace in the purity of runners who don't care about cold cash, the reality is otherwise. Rodgers, an affable and educated man, thinks often about the big money he is not getting. In recent conversations I had with him, in Washington and Boston, he talked about "the crazy amateur rules" imposed by "very old fashioned" groups, the Amateur Atheltic Union. When I suggested that the time has come for the $200,000 New York Marathon, or the $150,000 Chicago marathon, or the $200,000 Cherry Blossom, I almost had to get a towel to take care of his drooling.
That kind of money "would be appropriate," he said, "that would be nice. I would be considerably wealthier than I am right now . . . I think if you put out so much effort - put out and suffer it - as an athlete you should get something back."
He said that some of the top runners "do get some money under the table but it's peanuts."
I have a lot of sympathy for the runners whose financial diet is peanuts rather than the bacon brought home in rich hunks by the Borgs, Nicklauses, Pettys and other million-aires of American sports. But Rodgers and the 40 or 50 leading marathon runners won't deserve sympathy for long unless they wake up and organize into a bloc that can make legitimate demands for prize money.
Criticizing the AAU is wasted energy. What needs to be done away with is less the amateur code than the freebie code, the one allowing wealthy corporations to freeload on runners like Rodgers.
Manufacturers Hanover, a power in national banking, was a major sponsor of last year's New York marathon. The United Bank of Denver sponsored the recent Mile High marathon. Perrier Bottling put up money for the Cherry Blossom. Schlitz beer is backing a marathon in Washington in September. Pepsi Cola, Avon and Bonnie Bell are other corporate powers earning indirect profits from being identified with the healthy, clean and fun-spirited sport of long distance running.
Whatever the industry, from banking to beer making, it is naive to think that corporate policy is putting the interests of Rodgers and his colleagues ahead of a chance to increase profits through the public relations and advertising benefits from race sponsorship. Capitalists call this capitalizing.
In other sports, corporate sponsors - from Kemper Insurance to Monsant chemicals, Eastern Airlines, Kaiser, Firestone, Colgate and Walt Disney golf tournaments - the athletes demand and receive top dollars for prizes. Why shouldn't it be that way for marathon runners?
Two answers are usually given, but both hit the wall before the first mile. First is the "but-running-is-a-pure-sport" argument. This implies that money is dirty; it isn't. It is morally neutral, to be used for good ends or bad ends. Even if the purity argument held up, which it doesn't, it is too late. The top runners already are getting money secretively.
The second argument is that if runners do take prize money that will mean no Olympics for them. This underestimates the power that the runners have. In reality, the Olympics needs people of Rodgers stature more than the athletes need the Olympics.
I don't think the world class marathoners understand, first, either the marketplace economics of athletic excellence or, second, the power they have to demand and get a just share of the rewards now going to others.
I took to the day we have a marathon tour - say a six-events-a-year schedule of 150 of the best long distance runners in the world. Prize money would be distributed similarly to what now holds for the golf tour: a $200,000 open, with $50,000 to the winner, $30,000 for second place and on down. These events would be irresistible for television.
Nor would the programming problems be too much. A 2 1/2-hour time slot is all that would be needed, which is no longer than what is now given over to coverage of the major sporting events, if you consider tiresome pro football games "major."
Whether all this comes about depends on what kind of spunk and imagination the top runners can marshall among themselves. At the moment, I fear they are in the adolescent stage of grouching about the AAU. They have to forget about the useless amateur code and begin thinking about a professional code. If runners like Rodgers don't start thinking this way, no one else will.