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Original Issue


It's time for the top runners to start racing one another

There could have been a dramatic matchup at Bislett Stadium in Oslo on July 4. Steve Cram of Great Britain and Said Aouita of Morocco, the two fastest milers ever, both breathing fire, competed on the same track on the same evening, but not against each other. Cram ran the mile and won in 3:50.08. Aouita ran a 1,500, 120 yards shorter, and won in 3:30.69. They chased records but betrayed no interest in racing each other.

"It would have been nice to run together," said Cram, as in, It would be nice to have a chicken memorize the dictionary, "but in a season when we're both preparing for the World Championships in Rome in different events [Cram in the 1,500, Aouita the 5,000], we may never meet." This from a man who prides himself on his racing reflexes. Aouita, usually an arrogantly touchy competitor, was equally smarmy.

The result was a night of track both tedious and infuriating. Cram and Aouita proved to be in excellent condition. They were running essentially the same event. But they held back from the defining act of running: the race. This is not a form of abstinence to be applauded.

"Preparing for Rome" has become this year's convenient excuse for what the two best milers would be doing anyway, which is putting on exhibitions. Next year the excuse will be "preparing for the Olympics." They and their representatives actually try to con you into thinking this is acceptable.

"A competition against Cram?" gasped Aouita's agent, Enrico Dionisi, a master at keeping an unlimited number of contradictory answers in the air at once. "Why should they compete against each other? It's no good psychologically for Aouita or for Cram to make a match. If Aouita wins, it's bad for Cram. If Cram wins, it's bad for Aouita." That drew unsympathetic cackles from the athletes that Cram and Aouita have feasted on. "Why do you want this match?" continued Dionisi, as if arguing against a disastrous marriage. "No one asks that. Only the journalists ask. Only they want it."

"The people who pay want it," said Gianni Merlo of Milan's La Gazzetta dello Sport. "The way it is now is boring. The organizers give you money for a training session."

Dionisi stormed off in tactical retreat. "You cannot tell me what to do," he said furiously, and accurately.

We cannot tell Cram or Aouita to race, because, so long as promoters, crowds and television will pay to see record attempts, and the runners themselves have nothing to gain by risking their reputations against each other, the only places they must face off are in the World Championships and the Olympics. The real reason for this eternal failure to race is the manner in which track athletes are paid. At this year's Boston Marathon, for example, winner Toshihiko Seko of Japan earned a first prize of $40,000 and a Mercedes-Benz, while Australia's Rob de Castella, who finished sixth, collected a reported $158,500. Of that amount, $8,500 was prize money, and the rest was for showing up and performing a number of p.r. services. Promoters pay lavish appearance fees because they can sign up a star well in advance and then take the commitment along on their pilgrimage to the restorative waters of TV money. This, in effect, limits competition, because once a meet director has paid the price demanded by, say, 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses, he often can't also afford to pay the next best runner, which would set up the best possible race. Danny Harris, who chased Moses down in Madrid six weeks ago, was guaranteed barely an eighth—some $16,000 plus expenses—of the princely sum Moses received.

Cram and Aouita are in no way cowards. They simply listen to their accountants. Beyond stifling frequent racing, the money is now distributed in such a top-heavy way that it cannot support a strong second echelon of developing athletes, and the structure of track places unwonted power in the hands of agents and promoters.

The confrontation in Oslo that didn't take place never will until track's system of disincentives is changed. The ideal would be to ban, or sharply limit, appearance fees. Put all the money into a long list of prizes. The PGA Tour does it. Throw in a bonus for winning if two or three of the greats enter. Make it to the stars' benefit to actually show, in battle, why they are stars. Runners who had to win to eat would not have the luxury of fretting, as they do now, over how a single loss could defile their precious reputations. A man would be worth what he took home.

Surely that is a system in which Cram and Aouita would be released both from fighting down their own competitive urges and from mouthing insincere words about separate ways of "preparing for Rome." The moment they have something to win, rather than to protect, we will be privileged to see Cram and Aouita race each other with wild abandon.