Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 19 Jun 2001 08:47:56 -0400

Out of the Money


Twenty years have sped past since road running went openly professional. The pivotal event of 1981 was the Cascade Run Off.

That 15-K race in Portland, Oregon, awarded prize money, which led to short-term bans on several runners who took the cash. This in turn led to a rewriting of rules on who could earn what.

The question now: Is the sport better off in the U.S. than it was in 1981? Squadrons of Kenyans, along with Moroccan, Ethiopian and Mexican men, and women from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, plus their agents, certainly have found their rainbow's end on the American roads.

But is road running better for doling out prize money? It hasn't translated into better American running. Just the opposite -- in part because Americans have won less of the available cash in the open market, in part because they have a harder time even getting invited to the big-money races, and in part because the flood of foreign talent discourages the outclassed locals from even trying to compete.

And relatively few Americans now receive financial aid from shoe companies. Twenty years ago the shoemakers gave hundreds of developing runners a little help each. Now these companies choose to make a handful of established runners wealthy.

Americans might be worse off financially than they were 20 years ago. They surely are worse off athletically.

The early 1980s was the golden age of U.S. distance running. That decade began with the end of the Bill Rodgers era and Craig Virgin's two straight World Cross-Country titles.

The good times ran through Alberto Salazar's brilliant but brief reign... Greg Meyer leading a 1-2-3 finish of American men at Boston... Joan Benoit Samuelson's heroics... Mark Nenow's road and track 10-K records.

The golden age of U.S. running ended in the mid-1980s, in the early years of professional racing. Since then prize money has bought little success in this country.

Might it now be time, 20 years down the pro road, to rethink this system? Mike Tymn thinks so. This longtime, astute observer of the sport writes in his National Masters News column that we'd be better off without cash payments, period.

After covering the Honolulu Marathon for more than two decades, Tymn says, "I have often wondered whether bringing in elite runners from all around the world while offering them prize money really adds much, if anything, to the event. Is there a return on the investment?

"I suspect that if no elite runners were brought in for the Honolulu Marathon, and the competition came strictly from local runners and from others willing to pay their way to Hawaii, there would be just as much media coverage. The winning time might be only 2:22 or thereabouts, but the race would still draw just as many people the next year."

The best supporting example for Tymn's claim is the Marine Corps Marathon. It pays zero prize money, is usually won in "2:22 or thereabouts," and has become one of the biggest draws in the sport.

Tymn concludes, "My solution is to do away with prize money altogether and use that money to pay race directors and their staffs while just providing expenses for elite runners... I doubt that the sport would suffer. Many elite foreign runners would, but I don't know why that should be our concern."

I'm not suggesting a total elimination of prize money, or anything close to that. I'm asking only for a clear-eyed look at who does and doesn't profit from this money.

One early justification for handing out cash prizes was to help American runners succeed. The race winnings were suppose to let them train without having to find another job.

This isn't working too well as Americans win a small piece of the total pie. To pay the bills, the full-time runners are forced to chase the dollars in too many races -- often compromising their longterm development in the process.

Few U.S. runners earn a living solely through their running. And one piece of evidence shows that those who do are not better off for following this career path.

Only two American marathoners qualified for last year's Olympics. Both had careers outside of the sport, Christine Clark in medicine and Rod DeHaven in computers.

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