By 1981 the sham of amateurism, which began in the late 19th century as a means to segregate sport along social and economic lines, was too obvious to ignore and too constricting to let stand. Road running’s promise was great, but the top athletes were frustrated by the hypocritical status of their “shamateur” sport which looked the other way as appearance fees were paid to a few high profile athletes, notably American marathoners Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, while the majority of contending runners like Herb Lindsay and Greg Meyer, for instance, took home little or nothing even if they won. For their part, Rodgers and Shorter were unable to cash in on their deserved recognition via open market forces. So the athletes began to meet at events around the country in order to formulate a plan of action.
After numerous such gatherings in 1980 and `81, the Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA), the so-called athlete’s union, was created to challenge the IAAF’s prohibitive control of their career opportunities (Rule 53). The first race where this challenge was openly exercised came in June 1981 at the Nike sponsored Cascade Run Off 15K in Portland, Oregon.
In the wake of the Cascade breakaway America’s amateur governing body for running, The Athletics Congress (now USA Track & Field), suspended some sixty athletes, and threatened suspension for any other athletes competing in subsequent, TAC-sanctioned events against these “professionals”. This was the federation’s stick, eligibility for national championships and Olympic competition. But the athletes hung together, accepted their suspensions, and worked to attract allies to their cause.
WHERE WOMEN BLOW AND MEN THUNDER
An important battlefield in this political campaign played out inside the New Zealand federation, the NZAAA. Three New Zealand women, Anne Audain (the Cascade winner), Allison Roe (the `81 Boston Marathon champion), and Lorraine Moller, each accepted prize money at Cascade. All three were subsequently banned internationally by their federation, though Allison Roe turned back her money and was reinstated at that time. Anne Audain picks up the narrative from there.
“The U.S. athletes were only suspended, because of their constitutional rights,” said Audain. “We, on the other hand, had no such rights in New Zealand, and TAC executive director Ollan Cassell, who bragged about this to me at the Stapleton Airport in Denver in 1982, got the NZAAA to ban Lorraine and me internationally. We weren’t allowed to run. So Lorraine and I returned to New Zealand and had a go at the federation. Lorraine brought a lawyer with her.
“We threatened that if the federation didn’t stand by us in this matter we wouldn’t run for New Zealand ever again. Remember, that the Commonwealth Games were scheduled for Brisbane, Australia in 1982. We told the NZAAA that if they didn’t reinstate us for domestic competition we would go to the track and run the necessary qualifying times for the Games in front of all the media. Then if they didn’t put us on the team they would look like a bunch of fools, because we were by far the best women runners in the country with the best chance for medals, and the public was very much behind us. It was basically a bluff, but within ten minutes they did reinstate us for New Zealand competitions, and that forced the IAAF eventually to reinstate us as well.”
Back in the United States the next major test for the ARRA athletes came, as if by providence, in Flint, Michigan at the Bobby Crim 10 Miler. The city of Flint had mid-wifed the birth of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) in 1935. Consequently, Crim officials took the position in 1981 that the ARRA athletes were, in essence, trade unionists coalescing around a right to work issue. Crim linked ARRA’s fight to their own history as a union town, and ARRA had another ally in its corner. The suspended athletes would be allowed to run.
With sixty athletes, two major events, and the lifted ban in New Zealand lining up behind the ARRA challenge, TAC executive director Ollan Cassell received a clear directive from the international federation, IAAF, to clean up the mess on the roads in the USA. In response Cassell hired a Long Island-based lawyer and recreational runner, Alvin Chriss, in July of `81.
Chriss wrote, and then was hired to administer, TAC TRUST, a semantic money-laundering device developed in conjunction with Frank Shorter and Steve Bosley at the Bank of Boulder to combat the Eastern Bloc’s state support of athletes. TAC TRUST dispensed prize money to ARRA racers as “training expenses”, which was an acceptable veil to the worldwide federations, even as the world remained bifurcated along the super-power axis. Such was the evolution of the sport in America, and thus did the modern era of semi-pro road racing begin.
In this excerpt from the archives of Runner’s Digest Radio, TAC TRUST administrator Alvin Chriss discusses the lessons the ARRA athletes learned on the road toward professionalizing their sport. It is an eerily resonant message for every one of today’s runners who hope to earn a living from their sport, especially in light of last week’s Competitor Group, Inc.’s decision to eliminate elite athlete funding from their U.S. based events.