Hooray for Bill Rodgers, for coming about as close as possible, in an Olympic year, to admitting he ran the New York City Marathon last year for money.

Hooray for another marathoner, Tom Fleming, who told The Post's Jane Leavy about being contacted by race director Fred Lebow and asked: "How would you be motivated if this was to happen?" and also quoting Lebow as adding that there would be a cash-prize structure.

Hooray even for Lebow, who, while publicly denying any sort of run-for-more-than-fun arrangement, also publicly believes that such monetary prizes ought to be at whatever the market will bear.

"The fact of life is (that) 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," Lebow said.

In truth, the time came long ago. Open atheletics is inevitable. But that the idea might well be pushed to fruition by long-distance runners is staggering. It seems just an instant ago that no one but marathoners cared a side stitch about the marathon.

Until ABC and Frank Shorter made absolute drudgery seem glamorous in the early '70s, there was no surer way to empty a track meet than to begin any race beyond 5,000 meters. Long-distance running was as thrilling as the hammer throw. Or that marvel of mediocrity, the decathlon.

Now it is a social sin to be seen plodding through the neighborhood in any costume that cost under $75 and with shoes under $50. But the concept of anyone caring enough to justify five-figure payments to the rajahs of running still seems almost ludicrous.

First of all, nobody who works for a living runs. Or at least no farther than the bank and grocery store. Farmers hit their "wall" at the top of a tobacco shed in 100-degree heat. Ever hear of a longshoreman entering a 10-kilometer run?

It's just us mental laborers, who push little more than papers or ideas, who spend an inordinate amount of leisure time trying to crack the 10-minute-per-mile barrier without some mutt snapping at our Nikes. Still, even for mildly serious runners, there is nothing more boring than watching a marathon.

Unless it is listening to someone talking about running a marathon. Or a half-marathon. Or 10 miles. But enough people run and talk about running for America to have become marathon mad. Sweat sells.

It always has, but not to the point where we have everything but a jog-along-with-Jim Fixx album, where Perrier and Molson and Diet Pepsi are spending mountains of money to be the liquid first grabbed after a run.

To the President's Commission on Olympic Sports on Sept. 9, 1975, Shorter officially told how a world-class runner could survive if not thrive. Less than a year before defending his Olympic marathon title, he talked about under-the-table payments -- and got away with it.

" . . . Everybody knows about it," he said. "It is our own little way of getting by. When I was training in 1970 trying to get good, I just had gotten out of college, I was on food stamps, but in between the food-stamp line and training I would go out to California, say, from New York for two or three meets and I would get one plane ticket to get out there and I would get one or two plane tickets for other meets and then I would cash these in. DENLINGER, From D1>

"Now that is the situation in the United States, plus you get certain per-diem payments and they are allowed to give you $25 a day which you say, well, I want to spend three weeks in LA, you know? That can amount to a lot of money which they can legitimately give you."

Shorter's candor was one of the reasons we enter the '80s with rules of amateurism much more liberal than when we entered the '70s. If a person can earn money in a running-related activity, say, Shorter hustling for Hilton hotels, why not?

Why not now simply pay runners for running?

It is seeming less and less offensive. If Tracey Austin, at 17, can earn an income deep into six figures, grown men who can break 2 hours 11 minutes for a marathon certainly should be entitled to whatever their blisters can raise.

Up to a point.

Anyone who plays an important part in any sports event that charges serious money should not do it for free. The tablets that contain the old rules of amateurism ought to be smashed against a bust of Avery Brundage. Probably, they were first conceived by an Ivy League rower who wanted to stifle competition.

What Shorter was hinting about to the president's commission in 1975 was considerably less than what Rodgers and the others were hinting about to Leavy last week. Sports inflation is rising as quickly as real-world inflation. The table under which payments are passed to amateurs now has legs the size of uncut redwoods.

With running so popular, it cannot be long before runners are paid openly -- before promoters, in fact, brag about how much Rodgers and his successors are paid. That is one way to further heighten interest in their meets -- and their products.

Part of running's charm is that almost any clod can compete with the legends. Even excellent nonprofessional baseball players cannot pitch against Reggie Jackson in Yankee Stadium, or try to tackel O.J. Simpson. aMen and women who can't break four hours in the marathon can hobble over the same course as the American record-holder.

But although marathons are cropping up like athletic crabgrass, Rodgers and the others have only so many marathons in their legs. He and the rest should demand what they are worth -- and openly.

Like tennis, attitudes about purity will vanish about the five-mile mark of the first open race. The thrill of entering a competition will be enhanced, because the value of victory will be greater.

And the running-for-running's-sake snobs still can trot off by themselves.

But if world-class runners demand what they are worth they should not take all of it. It seems quite proper for the governing bodies of a sport to take a percentage of what their athletes earn.

If Rodgers, as insiders claim, got $15,000 in "expenses" to run in New York last year, it is not unreasonable for the national governing body to get a modest portion, perhaps as much as 10 percent.

Rodgers became a superior runner, in part, because someone unpaid cared enough to help him. AAU officials deserve much of the criticism they receive, but too often their volunteer work goes unappreciated.

Nobody deserves to take something from his sport without giving a bit in return.