The most intense rivalry in running is not taking place on the roads or the track. It is a battle of competing interests between The Athletics Congress (TAC), the national governing body for the sport, and the International Management Group (IMG), the Cleveland-based management company that made its name and fortune in tennis and golf.

Last month Alberto Salazar, an IMG client, told the New York Times that TAC officials offered him $60,000 to run in a marathon for which they had been hired as consultants. TAC says it will sue unless he retracts his statement.

Two weeks ago the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) refused to sanction a prize money marathon promoted by IMG. Salazar, the world record holder, and Robert De Castella, the second-fastest marathoner in the world and also an IMG client, were scheduled to run in the race in Brisbane one day before the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon is the qualifying event for the 1983 U.S. World Championship marathon team.

"If we allow this to continue, how can we maintain control of the sport?" said Jon Wigley, IAAF spokesman in London. "This is a challenge to the coordinated structure we've established."

So the battle lines have been drawn. Craig Virgin, the first American runner signed by IMG, in 1980, said, "This is the first salvo in what could become a seven-day war. This is what we all knew would happen if IMG became powerful enough."

Virgin is no longer represented by IMG. Its roster of athletes includes 14-world class competitors, among them Bill Rodgers, Allison Roe, Eamonn Coghlan and Sidney Maree.

Amateur rules allow athletes to maintain their amateur status as long as their earnings are put into trust funds monitored by TAC. The liberalization of the rules in December 1981, and the emergence of road running as a lucrative sport for runners, agents, sponsors and television networks, provided the opening and impetus for IMG to become a power in the sport.

The power struggle is a natural consequence of a sport in transition.

Jeff Darman, past president of the Road Runners Club of America, said, "You have several factors at play--superbly trained athletes who want to be paid well for what they do; promoters and agents who package athletes and events and expect to make a profit, and a governing body trying desperately to keep the genie in the bottle and balance its needs with those of the IAAF and IOC (International Olympic Committee). Through it all TAC is trying to maintain its own reason for being, (it is) an amateur body trying to control a professional sport."

Virgin, vice chairman of TAC's men's long distance running committee, argues that the "only true amateurs left are the officials and adminstrators who run TAC on a voluntary basis. These people were not proficient enough to administer (the sport). It left an opening for a company like IMG."

Because ultimately they must find an accommodation, the principals vacillate between diplomacy and confrontation. "Ollan (Cassell, executive director of TAC) regards them as the enemy," said Don Kardong, president of the Association of Road Racing Athletes.

Cassell declined to be interviewed. "We don't view anyone as the enemy," a TAC spokesman said. "Today IMG is trying to disrupt TAC. Tomorrow we may be allies."

Drew Mearns, IMG vice president in charge of running and fitness, says the company doesn't seek to control the sport, that it is simply trying to conduct business as usual, representing clients in the best way possible.

But he added, "If they want to fight, we have to fight . . . IMG or a company like it will win in the long run because athletes have the right to be represented."

"It's getting vicious," Kardong said.

After winning the New York City Marathon last fall, Salazar said he hoped to run in Boston and qualify for the U.S. World Championship marathon team. The world championship will he held in Helsinki in August. Later, he changed his mind, saying he had decided for training reasons to run only one marathon this spring and summer.

During this time, plans were being made for an early March marathon in Los Angeles to be run on the 1984 Olympic course. The sponsors wanted Salazar as a lure for national television. They hired TAC as a race consultant for a fee of $100,000. Only $25,000 was received before the race was postponed. TAC is no longer affiliated with the race, which is in limbo.

Bob Bush, interim chairman of the Los Angeles Marathon Organizing Committee, said a verbal committment that Salazar would run was withdrawn after the date of the race was changed. Bush confirmed he made an offer for Salazar in the $50,000 range.

In early December at the TAC convention, Salazar's representatives requested a bye that would qualify him for the world championship team without running in Boston. Salazar said the request was made with the understanding that if it was granted he would not run any marathon until Helsinki. The request was rejected. Soon after, plans were announced for the Brisbane race on April 17.

On Jan. 3, Cassell issued a memo saying he would enforce IAAF rules against the use of agents for the purposes of negotiations with meet directors. IMG and its list of athletes were specifically cited. IAAF has issued a directive saying it is against the rules for agents to set up events or negotiate with directors about them.

The concern is that IMG will use its athletes to control existing events and to create others.

"They came on very fast, moved into the arena, representing the cream of the crop of marathoners and milers in quest of controlling that end of the sport," said Fred Lebow, director of the New York Marathon, a sometime client of IMG. "They are trying to create events around them, disregarding what I believe to be in the best interests of the sport. But they are doing a good job for individual athletes."

On Jan. 25, in a letter to a running magazine, TAC trust fund lawyer Alvin Chriss criticized Salazar for his decision not to run in Boston and Helsinki, where there is no prize money: "Apparently Alberto is not willing to give up two years in a row of running a marathon without a paycheck."

Salazar, who intends to try to qualify for the 10,000-meter event, was furious. "They're saying I'm an unpatriotic money-grubber," he said.

He then charged Cassell and Chriss with offering him $50,000-60,000 to run in the L.A. Marathon. Sources say TAC refuses to negotiate with IMG on the role of agents until Salazar retracts his statement, which he has refused to do. He has since said he was mistaken in saying that Cassell was involved and in saying that the offer was made directly to his coach, Bill Dellinger.

Dellinger said no financial offer was made to him, but someone from TAC "called and said if he ran, Ollan would use his influence to count it as a qualifying race . . . I think an offer was made and it doesn't mean TAC wasn't involved."

Mearns said, "Alvin talked about money and financial benefit. He never specifically mentioned a sum of money. He initiated the discussion between me and the organizer and then withdrew. He certainly was aware of the offer."

The squabbling has diverted attention from Salazar's original point. "They're getting on my case because they say I wanted to make money," he said. "But they were willing to have me make money as long as it was in their race."

Some runners view TAC as an organization that has done little for them and now wants to cash in on them. They argue that TAC wants to act as their defacto agent. For example, if a company goes to TAC with a commercial proposal for an athlete, TAC receives 10 percent.

IMG also has its critics, some of whom say it, unlike TAC, represents only the elite. Others do not like its business practices.

Sources say IMG receives as much as 25 percent of athletes' earnings. Given IMG's roster of elite athletes, "they can make or break an event," said Lebow. They can also demand large appearance fees from race directors. "Some people have told them to get lost," said Howard Schmertz, meet director for the Millrose Games. "Others have said, 'This is what I can do.' "

Schmertz said IMG never demanded a figure in talks with him, but "it's quite possible they might have said, 'Someone else is offering Alberto $7,000.' "

Al Franken, meet director for the Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles, says IMG told him it would cost in the $8,000 range to have Salazar at his meet.

Mearns said the figures are not accurate "but not far off."

Runners are reluctant to criticize anyone for getting paid whatever they can command. But some say that IMG's practices on behalf of the elite is unfairly distorting the pay scale for all.

After it became clear Salazar would not run in Los Angeles, Kardong said Chriss told him that originally Salazar was going to receive $50,000 and that sum would now be made available for prize money.

"Drew said, 'That's the American way,' " said marathoner Benji Durden. "I said, 'Killing the golden goose isn't necessarily the American way.' "

"Did we destroy tennis and golf and motorsports?" Mearns asks.

The answer is they changed them. That is the fear in a sport already very much changed.

"They're starting to implement the strategy they use in tennis and golf," said Virgin. "They've got the chips and they are starting to play them. In 1981, TAC started to worry. Now they're panicking and there's all this nasty political stuff with the athletes caught in the middle."