COMMENTARY : The Boston Marathon Was Wheezing 10 Years Ago


Ten years ago, the Boston Marathon was in trouble. Deep trouble.

The showpiece of marathon races had attracted the world's best long-distance runners for decades, but it was threatening to deteriorate into a local race.

To the rescue came David D'Alessandro. He conducted three simple meetings that helped save the Boston Marathon from becoming a people's race and returned it to its status as the world's premier marathon. Now, one year away from celebrating its 100th running, the race is healthy and thriving.

For more than a half-century, the Boston event, with not much competition, was the most prestigious long-distance race in the world. But in 1984 and 1985, as other marathons grew and offered big prize money, Boston's clout diminished.

The Boston Athletic Association, longtime organizers of the race and traditionalists at heart, refused to knuckle under to the onslaught of prize money by other marathons. The association was content to let its race become a local marathon. If it had to pay elite runners, it didn't want them.

In stepped D'Alessandro, then a 34-year-old from Utica, N.Y., with little knowledge of the inside workings of the Boston Marathon.

"I was from upstate New York, and I didn't realize the race had such byzantine politics," said D'Alessandro, then vice president of John Hancock Financial Services and now the company's senior executive vice president. "As far as I knew, the city ran the race. I didn't know that the BAA conducted the race and that so many cities (the eight along the 26-mile, 385-yard course) were involved."

The dapper D'Alessandro said he had read that the marathon "was in trouble, and I said, 'This is something that we (Hancock) should get involved in."'

"By then, races all over the world were going commercial," D'Alessandro said. "The (Boston) Marathon was virgin -- it had been untarnished. London, Rotterdam and Tokyo (marathons) were all getting aggressive and I saw Boston weakening. The other races were competing for -- and getting -- Boston's athletes.

"It was disastrous. I would describe the situation as confused. In terms of being an athletic event, it had deteriorated into a 'show' run. No big athletes were coming and its world-class status as an entertainment event had diminished.

"A lot of other marathons were taking a piece of Boston. We didn't realize how much it would take to resurrect it."

D'Alessandro and Hancock got a chance to resurrect the Boston Marathon after outbidding other major companies, including McDonald's and Coors, and some local groups, for the right to be the major sponsor.

"They misread the tea leaves," D'Alessandro said of his competitors. "Other sponsors were treating it as an auto race -- they wanted their name splashed all over the course. They wanted to call it 'The McDonald's Boston Marathon' or 'The Coors Boston Marathon.' And they wanted to sign only a one- or two-year contract.

"The sponsors at that time were only interested in how many places along the course they could put their name and in changing the name of the race. They weren't looking to improve the race. I couldn't understand how a fast food company or a company that sells beer would want to sponsor an event that promotes good health and fitness.

"Our first priority was to get the athletes back."

Once Hancock was chosen by the BAA as the prime sponsor, after offering a 10-year deal for $10 million, D'Alessandro swung into action.

Through then-mayor Ray Flynn, he arranged a breakfast with members of the BAA. He met with race official Pat Lynch, and former Boston Marathon winners Bill Rodgers and Greg Meyer, and he had dinner with Steve Jones, then the world's fastest marathoner.

He convinced the BAA that not only did the race need to upgrade the number of its elite athletes and reward them financially, but that the event needed physical improvements, such as in its viewing stands and press facilities.

After speaking with the ex-champions, he decided not to offer appearance money but to sign the top runners to long-term personal service contracts and offer prize money. Under the contracts, the athletes had to conduct running clinics, mostly in schools around the Boston area. The success of those clinics has led to a national expansion of the program, from Maine to California.

The deal was that the athletes would receive between $25,000-$30,000 for the clinics. If they ran the Boston Marathon, they would get another $25,000. If they won the race, they would receive an additional $25,000 (the top prize now is $75,000), and if they broke the course record or world best, there would be bonus money, now $25,000 and $50,000, respectively.

The first runner D'Alessandro approached was Jones. It was over Thanksgiving dinner, and the Welshman came with his agent, Alan Warner.

"They didn't even know who Hancock was and they didn't have faith in the Boston Marathon," D'Alessandro said of Jones and Warner. "What we presented was so revolutionary they didn't believe it. We were having dinner at the Copley Plaza and we took them outside and showed them the (Hancock) building. That convinced them we were for real."

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