A slimmer, trimmer version of big-time marathon racing returns today to Chicago for the first time in two years, rising undaunted from a lost sponsorship and costly price-tags for elite runners.
Both the number of competitors and the number of world-class performers are down significantly from previous years, and only one former Chicago winner, Joseph Nzau of Kenya, will be among the 8,000 who will start from Daley Plaza in the 26-mile, 385-yard event.
“There’s probably 10 guys who think they can win, and maybe five capable of doing it,” said executive director Bob Bright, listing England’s Steve Binns, Australian Pat Carroll, Portugese Joaquim Pinhero and Soviet Iakov Tolstikov.
The top Americans entered are Paul Gompers of Fairview Heights, Ill., and Mark Curp of Chillicothe, Mo., who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Americans Lisa Weidenbach and Kim Jones, Britain’s Veronique Marot, and two Soviets, Ekaterina Khramenkova and Elena Tsukhlo, are expcted to compete for the women’s title.
The one-year hiatus became necessary when the marathon’s previous sponsor, Beatrice Corp., ended an eight-year commitment in 1986.
G. Heileman Brewing Co., maker of Old Style beer, is footing the bills for the 1988 run. But its not expected to come in at anything like previous years, when Bright fought, and often outspent, his counterparts in New York and Boston for the services of the world’s finest distance runners.
“I’m interested in the role reversal,” he said. “I’m very positive about this field. We’ll see someone jump out of here, then we’ll see if the fat wallets can run as fast (Nov. 6 at New York or next April in Boston).”
The payoff in Chicago will be big-time -- men’s and women’s winners getting $50,000 each from a $350,000 prize fund -- but Bright said no athlete running Sunday will get more than $12,000 in appearance fees.
That’s a big difference from days when he admitted paying as much as $50,000 for 1984 Olympic gold medalist Carlos Lopes of Portugal; $35,000 for Australian Rob de Castella, and $30,000 each for such luminaries as Rosa Mota of Portugal, the 1988 Olympic women’s gold medalist and reigning Boston champion, and Welshman Steve Jones, the 1984 winner in a then-world-best clocking of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 5 seconds, who defended his title the following year in 2:07:13 -- one second off the current world-best.
In addition to big dollars, Chicago’s relatively flat course, cool weather and resulting fast times helped lure the big names. Bright insists, however, this marathon will be more dramatic--not to mention competitive--without them.
Jones for instance, would throw off the competition, Bright said. “We’d have a fast race, but he would make hamburger out of everyone else. We’re trying to arrange a half-marathon in 1:04 so that there will be a lot of runners together for the second half of the race.”