"Four times," said Muhammad Ali. "Ain't no one been the champion four times."

Bill Rodgers has. The last four years, Rodgers has won the New York City Marathon. Now people are beginning to ask if he's still the greatest.

Rodgers, who will be one of 16,000 starters in the 11th annual 26-mile, 385-yard race on the sidewalks of New York today, says, "I'm due to get nailed."

"Yeah," says marathoner Don Kardong. "But he always says that."

"Usually I bet $2 against Bill," said Fred Lebow, race director. "This year, I'm betting three."

That might not be such a bad bet. Rodgers ran a 2:14.47 marathon three weeks ago in Toronto, 5:20 slower than his American record. Then again, it is tough to wager against a man who has won 13 of his last 16 marathons and is up against a field less formidable than in recent years.

None of the members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic marathon team -- Tony Sandoval, Kyle Heffner and Benji Durden -- is entered. Randy Thomas, of Boston Athletic Club, will run. But, according to Rodgers, he strained a hamstring muscle last week during training. Kirk Pfeffer, who led last year until the 23-mile mark, is not expected to run.

Not to count out the competition.

"I'm nervous," said Rodgers, "because there will be a few I have some respect for -- Gerard Nijboer, who won the silver medal in Moscow and ran the world's fastest marathon this year, 2:09.01. And there is Rodolfo Gomez from Mexico, who finished sixth in Moscow (in 2:12.39) and Franco Fava of Italy (whose personal best is 2:12.45)."

The international field, long Lebow's pride and joy, also includes Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, running in his first marathon on an ankle he twisted while running in Central Park; Alberto Salazar, originally from Cuba, who boasts a 2:28.06 for 10,000 meters but is running his first marathon, and Lasse Viren of Finland, running his last race of any kind.

The other top Americans in the field include three 26-year-olds: Kevin McCarey, who grew up in Queens, 1 1/2 miles away from the course (personal best 2:13.17); John Lodwick, a seminarian in Dallas who has run a 2:10.5; and Jeff Wells, who is best remembered for being edged out at the end of the 1978 Boston Marathon by Rodgers and the press bus and finishing second in 2:10.15.

The top women in the field, Grete Waitz, of Norway, and Patti Lyons-Castalano, will have two escorts: writer-runners Kenny Moore and Kardong, running for a story.

Waitz has been the whole story in New York for the last two years. She won both races, her first and second marathons, and set world records each time. She ran New York last year in 2:27.33, five minutes faster than the year before, and finished 69th overall. She has never lost a race on the roads.

Catalano, hoping that some of the magic would rub off on her, spent time training with Waitz earlier this year in Norway. Catalano recorded her best marathon time, 2:35.08, last spring at the Boston Marathon while finishing second behind Jacqueline Gareau and the mysterious Rosie Ruiz.

Speaking of Ruiz, who was the first woman across the finish line this year in Boston but was subsequently disqualified when it appeared she never ran the course, marathon officials say this year's race is "as Rosie-proof as you can be."

Ruiz originally qualified for the 1980 Boston Marathon through her finish at the 1979 New York City Marathon. Lebow subsequently discovered that she had not run the complete race in New York, either.

A spokesman said that there will be double checkers at each check point, checking the first 5,000 runners as they pass by. "We have special wands, like they use in grocery stores," he said. "Nobody will get by us."