The oldest marathon in America, the one that reminds us of the way we were, will begin as always at noon today with a member of the Brown family firing the starting gun. But the kind of race the Boston Marathon is going to be remains in doubt.

For a time this winter, it seemed the race might not take place. Last year, its 86th, the Boston Marathon ran into its own identity crisis. An agent was hired, $400,000 in sponsorship money was obtained, acrimony ensued. "It ceased to be what it was," said Tim Kilduff, a member of the Boston Athletic Association's (BAA) Board of Governors. "It was not New York. And it was not Boston . . . The race was on its knees."

Now, the BAA, agent Marshall Medoff and the state attorney general are mired in litigation and the future of the race is mired in controversy.

Though they stopped serving the beef stew to all finishers years ago, Boston has always been the bastion of tradition: John Kelley the Elder (running his 52nd race this year), the Wellesley girls shouting encouragement to anyone but especially those wearing Ivy League T-shirts, the refusal to give runners a thing, including subway fare.

Then in September 1981, Will Cloney, at the time president of the BAA and director of the marathon, signed Medoff and his company, International Marathons Inc., to be the sole agent of the marathon for procuring sponsorship. With that, years of noncommercial tradition came to an end.

The contract, which effectively allowed Medoff to remain the sole agent of the marathon as long as it sought commercial sponsorship, stipulated that Medoff could keep anything more than $400,000. He raised $712,425. The race went on. Alberto Salazar won.

Then all hell broke loose. The BAA decided it did not like what had become of its lovely, traditional marathon (several board members claimed Cloney had not informed them of what he was doing). He was forced to resign or retire, depending on the point of view. The BAA filed suit against IMI, alleging that the contract was void because Cloney did not have the authority to sign it.

That is not Medoff's only problem. The state attorney general's office has twice ruled that the contract is in violation of state law because the BAA is a charitable institution and an agent soliciting funds on its behalf may not receive more than 15 percent of the gross amount taken in.

Things simply happened too fast for staid Boston. Fred Lebow, director of the New York City Marathon, argues that Cloney's biggest mistake was his success. "If Medoff had only raised $100,000 to $200,000, no one would would have cared," he said.

And, Lebow said, "He underestimated the value of the Boston Marathon. He also underestimated Marshall Medoff."

Cloney admits only the latter, and concedes he may have been naive to give Medoff a contract that placed no ceiling on his potential earnings.

The question is: now what? The problem is paradoxical. "If you tamper with the traditional values of the race, then Boston is in trouble," Kilduff said.

Its tradition was its charm and its commercial value. To abandon what it was is to make it just another race. But top competition is also a tradition in Boston. This year, Bill Rodgers, the four-time winner, and Greg Mayer, his friend, will vie for places on the U.S. world championship team; Rodgers says he will try to run despite a bad cold. The women's field, with Allison Roe, the world record holder, and Joan Benoit, may be its best ever.

But Salazar, last year's winner, and Rob De Castella chose to run in Rotterdam last week. And the number of runners has fallen from 7,647 to 6,676. Arguably, the field is as good as it is only because the race was designated the qualifier for the U.S. world championship team.

This year, organizers have opted for tradition. They are trying to run the race for between $150,000 and $200,000. There is sponsorship, but the motive is no longer profit, Kilduff said. "There is a world of difference between selling the race and subsidizing it," he said.

There is no national television, no prize money. The only concession to time is a $15,000 contribution to The Athletics Congress that, sources said, will pay travel expenses for 15 runners (Kilduff said it was an unrestricted contribution, not earmarked for travel expenses). "We'll have to wait for April 19 to look long term and find out if the people who said they can run it as a traditional race are right," he said.

"If they go back, they will kill the race," Rodgers said. "They'll have a peoples race. If that's what they want, they can have it. I won't be part of it. The race will die. It will be a different kind of Boston . . . I know they're saying they have to go back to the old Boston. They're just saying it because this year there is no choice."

He said the race must be moved to a Sunday (for national TV), pay prize money, solicit corporate sponsorship and bring in knowledgeable leaders. "If they want to stay one of the top five or six marathons, they have to move now," he said.

The reason is this. Next year, an Olympics year, the field will be thin. "If they don't get their act together by 1985, it could be a problem," said one race executive. "I don't know if its tradition and power are strong enough to maintain it."

"They have to fish or cut bait," Rodgers said. "We're all aware of the changes in amateurism (which allow runners to receive money as long it is paid into a trust fund monitored by TAC). We're not going to buy any more of this amateur crap."

Rodgers thinks there will be prize money by 1985. This year, "it's all going to the lawyers."

Meanwhile, the $400,000 raised by Medoff remains untouched in an escrow account, the parties remain in litigation and Cloney remains on the sidelines: he will be doing color commentary for a local television station today.