Then, as now, it was the granddaddy of road races. The Boston Marathon first was held in 1897, a year after the revival of the Olympic Games in Athens. For nearly a century, runners competed for a laurel wreath, a medal, a bowl of beef stew, and a touch of immortality.
The beauty of Boston was that it never changed. The problem with Boston was that it never changed, even when the world around it did.
“We’ve been accused of being dinosaurs, of living in another age,’’ Will Cloney, the Boston Athletic Association’s longtime race director, mused in 1980. “I guess we’ll just have to be dinosaurs, then.’’
Only a few years later, the world’s most storied marathon was bordering on Jurassic.
“If they don’t go to prize money, that marathon is going to die,’’ defending champion Greg Meyer predicted before the 1984 edition.
What world-class runner would come to a place that offered no prize money, no appearance money, not even expenses?
“I can’t see going to Boston and wasting my effort there,’’ Ron Tabb, the 1983 runner-up, said when he withdrew before the 1985 event.
That year, Geoff Smith retained his men’s title by more than five minutes despite walking across the finish line. Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach won the women’s race by more than eight minutes. If her shoe company hadn’t offered her a bonus for winning Boston, she almost certainly wouldn’t have come.
“It’s just very difficult to go to a race for a handshake,’’ Larsen-Weidenbach observed.
That was the last time that the hand wasn’t holding a check. When Australia’s Rob de Castella turned up in 1986, he left town with $60,000 of sponsor John Hancock’s money plus a Mercedes-Benz after shattering the course record. Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen collected $35,000 and a car, and Boston was reborn.
“It was weird to win prize money,’’ recalled Bill Rodgers, who earned nothing for his four previous victories but picked up $12,500 for placing fourth that day. “But it was such an honor to be treated with respect. Now, we were like everyone else in America. We weren’t a niche sport any more.’’
Twenty-five years after the financial services company stepped in to save the race from becoming a holiday sideshow, Hancock has paid out more than $13 million in prize money. The winners of the 114th running a week from tomorrow will collect $150,00 apiece, not counting bonuses, and they’ll also earn points toward the World Marathon Majors crown that brings another $500,000.
Boston has become a thoroughly modern race, organized to accommodate both the elite athletes and the true amateurs who’ve multiplied the field five-fold during the past 25 years.
Full story: Crucial check point – The Boston Globe