This Wednesday, June 5th is Global Running Day, and there will be celebrations and recognitions throughout the world. But perhaps Global Running Day should be recognized two days earlier on June 3rd instead. Why? Because June 3 is Fred Lebow’s birthday.
While Frank Shorter is recognized as the Alan Shepard of the Running Boom with his victory in the Munich Olympic Marathon in 1972 igniting the sport’s growth in America, Fred Lebow was the man, perhaps as much as any other, who launched the sport of road running across the world from his offices at 9 E. 89th Street, headquarters of New York Road Runners Club just off 5th Avenue and Central Park.
In 2019, Fred would have been celebrating his 87th birthday. Sadly, he died of cancer in October 1994 at the age of 62.
Fred was not a great runner himself, finishing the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970 in 4:12:09, placing 45th out of 55 finishers. But he was a great running impresario at a time when the sport required intrepid pioneers willing to make something out of essentially nothing.
Back in the early days when running was making inroads into more and more people’s lives, it was Fred, bullhorn in hand and true belief in his heart, who became the sport’s primary front man and tub-thumper, the man who engineered the first five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976, taking what had been a quirky event making four-laps of Central Park and turning it into an international phenomenon.
Always looking to expand the sport, both domestically and internationally, Fred was a willing interviewee as well as a self-confessed “borrower” of ideas he discovered during his far-flung travels to see how others were staging races elsewhere.
On July 21, 1980, I sat down with Fred in his office for one of our many interviews for my Runner’s Digest radio show in Boston. In this interview, we discussed the future of running as a professional sport. It’s fascinating to go back nearly 40 years and see where Fred saw the sport’s future heading. I can only wonder what he would have thought of today’s running world.
FL: “I am going to London on Friday of next week to talk to (IAAF general Secretary) John Holt and then to Rome to talk to other national federation heads who will be there for a track meet. I’ve spoken to a number of federation officials on the phone who are very much in favor of setting up a circuit of races for prize money where the money goes to clubs and the clubs can do whatever they want with it, which in turn goes back to the athletes.”
Q: Why clubs in the middle?
FL: “That’s the double standard everyone has been working with for five decades. Everyone, the IAAF, IOC, AAU, they all know – and many participate themselves – in under-the-table payments, and have been for decades. They’ve tolerated it because it suited the system best. But I think the time had come to live up to the 20th century.
“We have the events earmarked. We have the sponsors earmarked, and the athletes are ready to do it. We are far ahead of what the federations are talking about Besides, track and field will have difficulties. The average person that watches the pole vault can’t go out and do a pole vault or high jump. Whereas everyone watching a road race can go ahead and participate in it.
“Western European countries are in favor of open competition, but they are ill represented in Moscow right now, and that’s definitely hurting our position. It’s hurting because we are trying to make them change (IAAF) rule 53 (athletes cannot accept money for competition.)
“To make it palatable to the federations, to the international bodies, Ollan (Cassell, Head of the U.S. federation) wants us to come up with a package of a circuit that makes sense, one that is well thought out, so that we’re not running blindly into this. We’re very careful about how we go about it. We don’t want to make any major mistakes. I was originally hoping we could start this in the fall and I still haven’t given up on that. But I won’t be disappointed if we can’t. Because I want to make sure whatever we do that it will be done not only in good taste. But also well-thought-out politically as well as financially.”
Q: Will it be a trial balloon race or are you suggesting starting right out with a circuit?
FL: “I think it has to be a circuit. I don’t think one event will mean anything. At least six, and as many as 18 in the circuit.”
Q: Will road racing be separate from track and field?
FL: “The difficulty in the international aspect is that we are still tied up with track and field. And somehow I believe eventually the solution lies in taking road running out of track and field because all the rules and regulations we go by were made for track and field. They were made for sprinting and the high jump. The longest thing they were made for is 10,000 meters. They don’t really apply to road racing. However, we have to abide by those same rules that the sprinters and the high jumpers abide by.
“I don’t think it makes sense because the average citizen is it going to be a sprinter or a high jumper. But the average citizen can be a road runner and that’s a big difference. My only problem is I am impatient. But I know it takes time. Even the governing body says they want to do it. But right now we just have to filter it through a little bit more.
John Holt (IAAF) told Serge Arsenault (Montreal Marathon director) that the IAAF is now a very progressive organization. It’s no longer the fuddy-duddy that we knew. And that’s very important to me. That’s an important statement.”
Q: With the Olympic Boycott in Moscow, how will this affect the Olympic movement going forward?
FL: “Ollan Cassell said to me, and it makes a lot of sense, that the Olympics will cease to be as important, but a new World Championships will be instead. To make an analogy, have you ever heard much about the Olympic soccer teams? No. But you have heard a lot about the World Cup in soccer. That’s the difference. The key to it is the Olympics aren’t what they used to be and never will be again. So the IOC will lose a lot of strength and power and the IAAF will progress.”
Q: Timing is very important. You say you need to be patient, but is it necessary to strike while the iron is hot?
FL: “Yes, but at the same time we want to strike a straight iron. Not only a hot iron but also a very straight and clean cut and one that is well thought out.”
Q: There was a meeting in Buffalo at the Olympic Trials Marathon. What came of that?
FL: “Everyone was unanimous as far as who wants to be part of the circuit, including Boston. However, Boston, for the time being, Will Cloney said there will be no money just points. I don’t expect any shocking news between now and October.”
Q: But you are talking about something historically important.
FL: “In 1896 there was a first Olympic Marathon in Athens. Then in 1897 the first Boston Marathon. In ‘72 Frank Shorter won Olympic gold in Munich. Then in 1976, the New York City Marathon went through all five boroughs. That’s where it all happened. The biggest push came in 1976 when the marathon was run in the capital of the world and received front-page coverage all over the world.”
Q: if you have to earmark the origins of these discussions about professionalizing the sport, where would that be?
FL: ”I’ve talked about this several times since 1977 in one form or another. But in 1979 the Washington Post ran a story alleging under-the-table payments to the athletes in our marathon. In fact, candidly, the real push came when I spoke with Joe Concannon of the Boston Globe in February and March before the World Cross Country Championships in Paris. I gave him the $150,000 money to athletes New York City Marathon story.
“The American public deserves better. We need to elevate running to a sport. Right or wrong what the public understands is the bottom line and the bottom line is prize money.
“Arnold Palmer makes prize money from golf, Bjorn Borg from tennis. That’s what the public understands, and that’s what people will watch. And if they see people running for prize money, they’re going to watch and go out and run.”
Well, Fred, they do run and have run. But running, at least in the USA, has seen its numbers shrink over the last six years. Not a lot, but that’s the trend. At the same time, as we see in China, the sport – or at least the recreational activity – is booming elsewhere. In fact, there was an IAAF Global Running Conference held at the Lanzhou International Marathon in China just this past week. But the amount of prize money that Fred Lebow was talking about 40 years ago has never come to pass in this sport.
“If the public knew that Bill Rodgers was making $300,000 to win the New York City Marathon, CBS, NBC, and ABC would be lining up at my door bidding for the television rights.”
Makes you wonder what would’ve happened if Fred had lived. Still, where would the sport or recreational activity be today if Fred hadn’t immigrated from Romania and brought so many tens of thousands of people to their feet in the short time he had in hand?
The sport will never forget. Perhaps sliding Global Running Day two days earlier to his birthday might be one good way to remember and say thank you.