WASHINGTON — How times have changed.
This spring--in a decision that would have scandalized the Olympic empire only four years ago--both the men's and women's U.S. Olympic marathon trials will offer prize money of more than $300,000 in addition to the honor of representing the United States in the 1988 Games at Seoul, South Korea.
"We have to get away from the idea that the Olympics are for amateurs," said Don Kardong, president of the Assn. of Road Racing Athletes, an organization of runners and officials who challenged the amateur system in 1981 by developing the first prize-money competition.
"I think what this will do with other Olympic sports is put them on notice that this is possible and desirable--and can enhance their sport as well," Kardong continued. "The reality is that to train and prepare properly, you need money.
"This is one element of our support system in the West. In an Olympic year, we should not put the athlete in the position of having to choose between the Olympic trials and some big prize-money event."
Further, the decision to provide financial incentives for both races seems to have caused hardly a ripple among other Olympic sports and has received a blessing of sorts from both the U.S. Olympic Committee and The Athletics Congress, the sport's governing body in this country.
"We have nothing to do with it," said Mike Moran, a USOC spokesman. "It's all handled by the national governing body. We accept whatever athletes are declared eligible by their own federation. Every sport has the option of making money available to their athletes, the only exception being NCAA athletes. We have no rules about eligibility or trusts, or anything like that--especially now, because it varies from sport to sport."
TAC officials, who, before 1981, bitterly fought the growing movement to establish official prize money, now welcome its appearance in Olympic trials.
"We think it's a good step. It's fine," said TAC spokesman Pete Cava. "There's a lot of races in which there's prize money, which is good for the sport. Here's an opportunity when money can be given to athletes competing in the trials. We say: 'Why not?'
"Basically, the trials are like any other track meets. The only thing that makes them different is what's at stake--a berth on the Olympic team. But we had prize money in the trials for the World Championships and the Pan Am Games, so why not the Olympic trials, too?"
The issue of prize money remains controversial, though. It has created problems for some athletes, who compete frequently for money--some say, too frequently--and whose overall performances suffer as a result.
"I think prize money can't be the total extent of our system for supporting our athletes," Kardong said. "I think we really need to create a stipend program for top athletes, so that they can make decisions based on the ability to have a top performance, not solely on whether there's a lot of money there."
Nevertheless, virtually everyone in the running community agrees that the sport is better with it than without it, that the climate is much improved by "official" money, rather than the never publicly mentioned cash that was routinely passed to athletes "under the table." Currently, an athlete's prize money is put in a trust fund for the athlete, administered by TAC.
"People who are naive and hear about this will sit there and say: 'What is this?' But I think it's practical," said J. Larry Kuzmanko, director of the women's marathon trial, to be held May 1 in Pittsburgh.
"Other countries support their athletes totally, and our athletes will have to compete against them," Kuzmanko added. "There are two good reasons for trials prize money. People need something to sustain themselves to be able to train from May to September. And people have trained their whole lives to make the Olympics--there should be some reward for it.
"Athletics is a business. People shouldn't have to starve in order to represent their countries in the Olympic Games. We shouldn't lose medals because of a lack of funds."
His counterpart, Tim McLoone, director of the men's trial to be held April 24 in Jersey City, N.J., agreed.
"There is no doubt that for American men, this is the most important marathon on the 1988 schedule, and we want to ensure that the best American marathoners are able to compete here under optimum conditions," he said.
"If the awarding of prize money helps an athlete dedicate himself that much more, the entire U.S. Olympic movement will benefit. Our feeling is that the prize structure in this year's race accurately reflects the realities of world-class marathoning today."
The men's race will award $50,000 to the first-place finisher $25,000 to the second finisher and $20,000 to the third member of the Olympic team. But the money doesn't stop there. The top 20 will be provided some financial reward, with $15,000 for the fourth finisher, who will serve as an Olympic alternate, and $100 for 20th place.
The money structure for the women's race is a little different. The Pittsburgh race will offer a total of $160,000, but the money will be turned over to TAC, and a special women's long-distance racing committee will determine how the prizes will be broken down.
"The only thing I've asked is that they set aside a certain amount for masters (over-40) women," Kuzmanko said. "The money belongs to the women and they should have the input as to how it should be allotted."