When Simeon Kigen and Rosa Mota received $3,000 apiece for winning their divisions of the Nike Cherry Blossom 10-Mile last year, it marked the first time a sponsor openly awarded prize money to runners in a metropolitan Washington foot race.
Although prize money used to be a sensitive issue in running circles, little criticism was voiced after race director Phil Stewart announced a total purse of $13,500 to leading finishers. In fact, reaction to the decision by the running public generally has been favorable.
This year, in its 13th running Sunday beginning at 8 a.m. in West Potomac Park, the Nike Cherry Blossom will offer a total of $16,500 to the top 10 finishers among 4,500 men and women, making it the 15th-richest race in the nation.
Until the early 1980s, race organizers, contestants and governing officials of amateur running had publicly complained that world-class athletes were receiving $10,000 to $15,000 in under-the-table appearance fees from race sponsors eager to attract big names. With an appearance fee, the athlete receives pay regardless of how he fares in the race.
Then, at the 1981 Cascade Run Off 15-Kilometer in Oregon, the athletes were paid based on their finishing places. The Athletics Congress (TAC), governing body of amateur running in the United States, protested this public display of commercialism. Nonetheless, distribution of prize money took off from there and has become as widespread and widely accepted as appearance fees.
Over the last three years, TAC has allowed amateur runners to receive both appearance fees and prize money, provided the athletes place the money in a trust fund. The money can then be drawn upon for training-related expenses.
"We had talked about it (awarding prize money) as early as 1982 because the amateur rules were really liberalizing with the Cascade Run Off in 1981," said Stewart, now in his third year as race director. "The tradition in our race was never to pay appearance money. The prize money was a good thing for us, because it adhered to our philosophy."
The opportunity to award prize money in the Cherry Blossom race arose when Perrier, which sponsored the race from 1978 through 1983, did not renew its contract for the 1984 running.
"Some of Perrier's marketing strategies were changing and we wanted to go in the direction of prize money," Stewart said. "(Communications director) Jeff (Darman) and I are under the conviction that the runners should come down and get paid for their efforts.
"I think that Perrier was not so sure about the prize money because they wanted to know who was going to be there (at the race). With appearance money, you know who will be there; with prize money, you're not sure until they line up for the race."
Perrier was responsible for the presence of four-time Boston and New York City marathon winner Bill Rodgers, who was under contract with the company to run here in return for appearance money. Rodgers won the Cherry Blossom four straight times from 1978-81, placed second in 1982 and was fifth in 1983. Since Nike became the primary sponsor for the race last year, Rodgers has declined to compete here.
"Perrier was covering my appearance fee and then they pulled out," said Rodgers, who instead will receive an appearance fee to run a marathon in New Jersey Sunday. "I don't run for Nike and I don't have any reason in that respect to run the race. If a business sponsor wants to use my name, they're going to have to pay for it."
Stewart and Darman were not willing to pay for world-class runners at the expense of the other entrants. With a working budget estimated by Stewart in excess of $30,000, the Cherry Blossom is believed to be the only major race in the world that doesn't charge an entry fee. Currently, entry fees nationwide average $8 to $12 but can go as high as $100.
Some runners do receive travel fare to Washington and lodging -- those men who have run under 48 minutes for 10 miles and women who have bettered 56:30. About 30 athletes receive those expenses.