NEW YORK — This year, with the rival marathon in Chicago out of the running until spring, and with the appearance fees of top athletes spiraling out of control, the powers behind Sunday's New York City Marathon were finally in a position to make an important political and financial decision.
Starting this year, with only a few exceptions, they will no longer pay top runners huge bonuses just to show up.
"Certainly, the amounts of money were just getting out of hand," said race coordinator Allan Steinfeld. "Races were being pitted against each other, people were bargaining with one race against another and the numbers were just skyrocketing."
The result, with the best athletes going to the highest bidders, was that top runners would agree to start a race--for big chunks of money--but wouldn't necessarily run competitively, or even finish. The practice had gone on for years, first under the table and later openly, when appearance money became legal.
"The times were so far off, and we felt it just wasn't fair to other athletes and to the sport," Steinfeld said. "We'd like to see athletes get paid for running well. So we will pay money at the finish line--not at the starting line."
This year's prize money totals $274,000, with the men's and women's winners each getting $25,000 and a Mercedes-Benz. There will be additional incentives for faster times under normal weather, as well as under hot and humid conditions, and bonuses of $10,000 and $5,000 to Americans who finish among the top three.
The only runners who will receive appearance money, Steinfeld said, will be former winners, which means defending champion Gianni Poli and two-time winner Orlando Pizzolato, both of Italy; four-time winner Bill Rodgers, and 1981 women's winner Allison Roe of New Zealand, plus past Olympic medalists, this year 1972 gold medalist Frank Shorter.
The only other exceptions would have been those with the fastest times in the world, Portugal's Carlos Lopes, who holds the world record of 2 hours 7 minutes 12 seconds for the 26.2-mile distance, and Welshman Steve Jones, who has run the distance a second slower.
Sources said, however, that New York Road Runners Club officials abandoned negotiations with both Lopes and Jones because each was demanding about $100,000.
Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, the women's world record-holder who ran 2:21:06 in the 1985 London race, has chosen not to run here, and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, who holds the second fastest time in the world, of 2:21:21, gave birth to her first child, Abigail, last weekend and presumably won't be competing for several months.
The New York club's decision was attacked by some and applauded by others.
"I believe you should run and get paid for what you do, not just for showing up," said Bob Sevene, coach of both Nike Boston, a club of young athletes, and the elite Athletics West.
Greg Meyer, the 1983 winner of the Boston Marathon, who will run here Sunday, disagreed. Coincidentally, he is coached by Sevene.
"When there are so few marathons of quality that have to compete against each other, you have to give money," he said. "Appearance money is a reality in the sport. There's no one going head to head with Fred (Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Club) this year, and that allows him to do this.
"If New York had anybody to compete against, they'd have to pay appearance money if they wanted certain runners. Fred's not concerned with the race; he's always been concerned with putting on a show. He's not concerned with building a field; he's concerned with bringing in the names."
For the last several years, Lebow had been waging a fierce and sometimes nasty bidding war for the world's best marathoners with Bob Bright, director of America's Marathon/Chicago. The Chicago race, beset by problems and shaky sponsorship, was not run this fall and has moved to the spring.
Rodgers agreed with Meyer.
"I think it's a one-year decision," Rodgers said. "I think after the 1988 Olympics, when Fred wants to get the top Olympic athletes, they will offer appearance money again. Why not? Why should the New York City Marathon be a second-level competition. A high-quality marathon should have the best in the world."
Despite the debate, the field this year looks competitive, and it may be more so if the money is paid to top finishers, rather than top starters. The top entrants, besides those collecting appearance fees, include Moroccan Nechchadi el Mostafa, second-fastest in the world this year at 2:10:09; Englishman Hugh Jones, third-fastest at 2:10:11; Scotsmen John Graham, whose best is a 2:09:28 in 1981, and Alister Hutton, whose best is a 2:09:16; Tanzanians Agapius Masong, whose best is 2:10:42, and John Bura, who has run 2:11:27, and Kenyans Ibrahim Hussein and Geoffrey Koech.