Athletes competing in American track and field events will be permitted to accept open payments this year for the first time, provided they put the money in a trust fund and use it only for training purposes, under guidelines being drawn up by The Athletic Congress (TAC).
The plan will permit athletes to accept money without sacrificing their amateur standing, thus preserving their eligibility for international competition, according to the TAC, the governing body for American track and field.
The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), at a special meeting in Rome last month, approved the TAC proposal. Many athletes say that may be a significant first step toward open competition in which athletes could compete in track and field events regardless of amateur or professional standing.
"I'm 100 percent in favor of it," said Bill Rodgers, who has won the Boston and New York marathons, and, for the last four years, Washington's 10-mile Cherry Blossom Race. "It's on the way towards open competition."
Don Kardong, president of the Association of Road Racing Athletes, said: "It doesn't accomplish in total the goal that we are seeking, which is open competition. But we do understand that a lot of athletes feel that this is a transitional step, and we respect that."
Pete Cava, director of information for TAC, said details of the guidelines should be worked out within weeks. He said they would permit athletes to accept prize money as long as the money goes into a trust fund to be used only for training purposes.
But he added that TAC will define "training purposes" liberally: "If an athlete drives his car to and from practice, he could take the cost of auto repairs as training purposes. If he has an apartment in Washington and his parents lived in Philadelphia, he could count the cost of the apartment as being for training purposes."
At the end of his athletic career, Cava said, an athlete would be permitted to take the money from his trust fund and do with it as he wished.
Since TAC became the governing body for track and field events in 1979 it has pushed for liberalization of the eligibility rules but without success until the IAAF meeting in Rome last month. IAAF approval was needed to assure American athletes' eligibility in international competition.
The trust fund proposal was first put before IAAF delegates at the World Cup games in Rome last September, but delegates wanted more time to study the proposal and deferred action until last month's special meeting.
Kardong said the issue of compensation always has caused friction between the Eastern European, Communist bloc nations and the Western nations, which have less state subsidization of sports. The Eastern bloc, he said, has traditionally favored tighter eligibility requirements.
"You have an absurd situation now where one athlete might win a $200 prize and be declared ineligible for competition, while another might have earned almost $1 million in indirect compensation, and they are still allowed to compete," Kardong said.
Al Franken, a West Coast meet promoter, said ultimately the IAAF decision will increase the popularity and exposure of track and field competition in the United States.
"I think legitimate prize money is the only way to go," he said. "Look at what it's done for tennis. You need big money to attract television and public interest. We all know the money goes to the athletes now anyway. They just recycle it through their running clubs. I see nothing wrong with getting paid for doing something well."
Chuck Galford, the lawyer for the Association of Road Racing Athletes, said: "At best, we view the trust fund as a transition step to a more open sport where money is paid out in the open and the distinction between amateurs and professionals is not very meaningful. The negative aspect of the trust fund is that it is a sham. It is a way for people to get money for their sport and still call themselves amateurs."