NEW YORK, OCT. 31 -- It seems no New York event is complete without more than a little contrariness, contentiousness and contradiction.

Of the New York City Marathon, set to start Sunday at 10:40 a.m., New York newspapers are saying that with an expected 22,000 entrants, the stars are either watching from the sidelines or are too old to pose a major threat.

Ever feisty race organizer Fred Lebow reacted to that assessment with indignation. But of course there are stars, he said, 80 of them to be sure, despite the fact that most of America's top runners are sitting this one out in preparation for the Olympic trials in the spring.

"They're saying that just because we don't have people like Steve Jones or {Rob} de Castella, but we've got 80 runners better than 2:20," said Lebow. "It's the biggest and the best field ever. I've run London, L.A., Boston, Rome, Paris, Moscow, everywhere, I've run them all and there's nothing like New York. It's the race that sets the standards."

Lebow has also had a running battle with the city. His request to use both the upper and lower levels of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, perennially a bottleneck forcing many runners to stop for up to 15 minutes at the first mile mark before crossing, has been turned down again.

"That's the most frustrating thing," he said. "I'd even ordered rubber matting at a cost of over $4,000 and it's just sitting there and there's no one to dance on it. They say they're worried about a traffic jam or something, but the real reason is their small-mindedness."

He even courted more controversy when he made noise about denying entrance to a human centipede -- 13 runners from northern California linked together with long nylon strands -- in the interest of preserving the sanctity of the New York City Marathon. But each runner had qualified individually and will link up after the gun goes off.

But in the final analysis, when the starting cannon goes Sunday morning, Lebow will have again produced a spectacle worthy only of New York. In its 18th year, it is the largest marathon ever and its international field of 7,500 is unparalleled. Each winner, a male and a female, will receive $25,000 and a Mercedes-Benz. The rest of the $274,000 prize money is apportioned among the top 15 men and 15 women.

Last year's champion Gianni Poli of Italy and countryman Orlando Pizzolato, who won it the two preceding years, are entered. There are no American women expected in the top 10. Instead, New Zealander Allison Roe and Britain's Priscilla Welch head a talented field also including two Hungarians, two Belgians, two Frenchwomen, a West German and an Italian all under 2:33.

"It's really the only choice," said Greg Meyer of Grand Rapids, Mich., the entrant with the fastest time, 2:09. "Fred is lucky this year because there is no real competition {marathons elsewhere} this fall. There are a series of other good races but nothing in the same category."

In the past, the Chicago marathon rivaled New York's, enticing many top runners west with greater monetary incentives. This year Chicago moved to the spring.

Both Meyer and Roe, the top men and women prospects in terms of having a history that stretches beyond the last two years, are on the comeback trail.

Meyer's last major victory was the Boston Marathon four years ago. Roe first appeared in the New York race six years ago, and won it in the women's course record 2:25:29. But had long injury layoffs thereafter. Consequently, Meyer, 32, and Roe, 31, are setting modest goals; New York will measure their readiness for the Olympics next year.

"To judge my fitness level, that's been my whole goal from the start for New York," said Meyer. "I want to get one under my belt before the trials. I'm going to break 2:13, it's a slow course. I'm not going to say, no, this isn't my last shot at the Olympics, but it's probably my last really, really good shot. I've raced well the last few weeks and my friends are saying I should try and run faster."

Last year in Boston, Meyer tried to go out much faster and had to walk the 23rd mile.

"That was one of the few times I made a mistake in a marathon," he said. "I tried to run faster than my fitness level, which was mid-2:10. I went out at 2:09 and at {mile} 17, Deke {de Castella} didn't die, I did.

"This time I just want to react to myself. I want to take it controlled. I'll let people go if they start at a 2:08 pace. I'll say, 'Have a good day, boys, I'll probably see you in the park when you're walking.' "