Bill Rodgers, not the easily offended type, wasn't taking it personally that he wasn't invited to the White House after he won his latest Boston marathon. He understood. Last Year, he got the royal treatment. Good-natured Bill. Sit at the president's table and give the First Jogger some tips on lowering his time. Keep your knees high, Mr. President, elbows in.
That was before Carter told Rodgers and the other Olympians that their knees and elbows wouldn't be going to Moscow. Since then, Rodgers has been among the angriest of the scorned athletes. In a conversation with me a few days ago, he dimissed Carter as a hypocrite for trying to picture the boycott as a national security issue: "Suddenly we're using the Olympics to fight the Russians. I'm willing to sacrifice if I think there is a real need to sacrifice. None of the athletes is for what's happening in Afghanistan. But don't play games with people, as Carter is doing, just to get votes. It's got nothing to do with national security."
Had he read the newspaper that morning. Rodgers would have been able to make an even stronger case. The United States, a story said, will continue to sell grain to the Soviet Union. The Russian army could have taken over Kabul with two more divisions, but the corporations profiting from grain sales would be left untouched.
Instead, Rodgers talks about the most painful part of the boycott: "the fact that no one stood up for us -- not the running magazines, not the sportswriters, and not even our own Olympic committee. All the people on the committee who voted to support Carter should lose their jobs and be banned from sports. Just like they ban athletes who take drugs, we should ban officials."
It takes a moment or two to get used to a belligerent Rodgers. Most of the time his hackles remain unraised and his pulse rate is placid, as if all of his nonrunning life was downhill with a favoring wind. As charming as he can be, the soft Rodgers is being replaced more and more by the hard Rodgers.
In his new book, "Marathoning," which, though no classic of literary introspection, is absorbing reading, Rodgers speaks toughly. Before last October's New York Marathon, for example, he writes that "what upset me was that Fred Lebow was supporting Frank Shorter again. It's symptomatic of the people who feel that Frank, simply because he won the gold medal in 1972, is inevitably No. 1. No matter what I or any other marathoner has done since 1972, Frank is No. 1."
No doubt it is irksome to have won four New Yorks and four Bostons and always have it said of you, "Bill, you're a great runner but you haven't got the Olympic gold." I suspect this is behind Rodger's rage about the boycott. Moscow was a chance to win and thus get Shorter off his back for all time. For Rodgers, it's an unfortunate bind to be in, because he keeps turning back one touted challenger after another -- Bjorklund at New York in '78, Toshiko Seko in Boston '79. Distance running has never had another marathoner like him.
When Rodgers said the other day, "I like the grind," he was speaking of another kind of endurance test -- the book tour he is on. He had been to Houston, and Balitmore, and was on the way to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, running around in full fever to the talk shows, call-in stations and newspaper offices. It's a dog's life, he agrees, but it's all right "just this one time."
Other athletes at their peak have said the same, and that's the question now about Rodgers. In five years, he has gone from a jobless maverick to a $200,000-a-year commerical enterprise.
It all passes so quickly. What's to be wondered about Rodgers is whether he will be the rare exception and be albe to dabble in such peripheries as book hustling, merchandising a clothing line and wasting his time giving interviews, and not pay the price of losing his edge.
If he is going to risk placing his energies in outside things, it ought to be in helping organize distance runnes into an economic bloc. The recent prize-money disclosures suggested that the runners are fast of foot on the roads but pitifully slow in the boardrooms. They should have been running for prizes five years ago.
It shouldn't just be a few of the elite, like Rodgers or Shorter, who are given fair wages for their talent.
If the runners could orgnize themselves, they could demand -- and get -- prize money in all the top races.
Rodgers says he wants to see "open running" and that there is " a good chance that I would accept prize money." Before this year's Boston, a few of the top runners met in Rodgers' store to talk about professionalizing themselves. But not much, except good feelings, came out of the meeting. "We're trying to establish how much unity we have," Rodgers says. "Right now, it's just a group of us talking."
Talk is exactly what the corporate sponsores want to keep hearing from the runners. Anything but action, anything but negotiating power to get just compensations. The major need of the runners right now is to hire a strategist who will represent their economic interests before the corporate sponsors, the equipment companies and others who are cashing in on the running boom.
If the baseball players can come up with somelike Marvin Miller, who has exactly the right kind of surly, haggling and unyielding disposition needed for the nastiness of economic bargaining, why can't the runners?
Rather than getting angry about the Olympic boycott, the runners' anger, Rodgers' included because even at $200,000 a year he is getting only a small portion of what he deserves, should be directed at organizing a boycott of their own: of any corporately sponsored races that don't offer prize money. Expense money, travel money and free shoes are mere crumbs -- from the loaf that currently is being divided up by the nonrunners.