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Race Director Guy Morse has taken Marathon to new heights

By Tony Chamberlain, Globe Staff, 04/16/99

On the morning of April 15, 1996, a division-sized throng of runners boarded 654 buses on Boston Common for the 26-mile ride to Hopkinton High School whence at high noon they ran back - 38,708 strong - down a major commuter highway right into the heart of a major city.

That the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon, whose field had swelled to three times normal size - straining every system needed to handle such a human tide of runners and spectators - came off with relative ease may not be attributable to just one man. But few observers who were around in the decade before, when the world's most famous footrace was in sad decline, believe that without the steady hand of director Guy Morse at the helm, Boston could have come through the centennial so well and be standing at its current pinnacle of organization and prestige.

Even Johnny ''The Elder'' Kelley, whose involvement with Boston stretches back eight decades, declared: ''It's better today. With women runners and sponsorship money, it's much better today.''

Few veterans would have argued such a thing in the '80s, when, as Marathon historian Tom Derderian observed: ''Of all the vicissitudes the Boston Marathon had survived since 1897, including two world wars, two lesser wars, and a major economic depression, it was the 1980s, peace, and money that nearly killed it.''

By the mid-1980s, most other major marathons offered prize money to attract the elite runners while Boston kept its blue nose resolutely in the air. What about - Gasp! - amateur purity?

But by then, the world's top runners, who once had competed for a trophy and a laurel wreath, now followed the big-time marathon circuit that made them, for the first time, a legion of pro athletes.

Perhaps the greatest insult to the old way of doing things came in 1984 when Geoff Smith, the only runner in his class, won the race, literally walking across the finish line as if to say, ''So where's the competition?''

The decade that began with the infamy of Rosie Ruiz and a phoned death threat on Bill Rodgers seemed destined to dump the Boston Marathon into the minor leagues.

And perhaps the worst insult of all was that New York, so detested in the sports eyes of Bostonians, now bragged that the Big Apple hosted the premiere marathon of the East.

In the meantime, behind the scenes, a disastrous attempt to remedy the problem was being worked out. The Boston Athletic Association's Will Cloney, who was eventually forced out as race director, signed a quiet deal with Boston lawyer Marshall Medoff, giving him sole rights to the sponsorship of the race, which Medoff proceded to turn into a profit-making venture.

As howls of protest arose, it was clear that a new direction was necessary, and in 1983 Guy Morse was bought in as an interim administrator. He was made full-time race director in 1985.

His first years, says Morse, were devoted to turning the race from an amateur to professional event with structure and funding to befit the race's stature as an annual institution.

''When I first got to my office, I had a staff of one, one office in the Boston Garden, one rotary phone on the floor,'' said Morse, a 1974 Northeastern graduate who lives in Centerville on Cape Cod with wife, Nancy, and four children. ''Over the last 15 years we've become a viable, first-class organization. It's a year-round effort now. I have surrounded myself with the best people in the business.''

Now, with a full-time staff of 15 and offices in Boston and Hopkinton, Morse sticks to what he considers his most important article of faith: ''You're only as good as the people around you.''

In addition, an organizing committee of about 60 volunteers works throughout the year seeing to the kinds of details - from a medical team to security forces - that are easy to take for granted.

''It's still fundamentally - as all great events are - a volunteer operation. A lot of the people here predate me. The amount of experience is just incredible, and it makes my life easier.''

John Hancock was the first and is still the major sponsor of the race. There are now 17 corporate sponsors, which help raise the $5 million budget the Marathon needs yearly.

''That's what it takes to present the event at the level we like to keep it,'' said Morse. ''We try to keep the marathon as noncommercial as we can. That's part of the charm and the value of the event.''

The other big part of the job is organization within the eight cities and towns that the race passes through. The race, he says, is as much regional as it is historic, and all the towns have an equal share.

Still, over the years, Boston's dreaded sports foe, New York, has claimed its superiority over Boston. But, says Morse, this is true in size only. New York has more than 30,000 running annually, almost three times the size of Boston's numbered runners, who must qualify. New York runners do not.

''There seems to be less of that attitude now,'' said Morse, who has studied marathon presentations all over the world. ''New York is run on a Sunday, so there's a [TV] network associated with it, and of course the Boston tradition is that it's run on Patriots' Day.

''But now, with cable being so strong, we provide Boston to a nationwide audience. But our race is more manageable, and the quality of the runners is much higher here because of those qualifying standards.

''In terms of spectator coverage, there are more spectators here and we have a much more knowledgeable crowd by virtue of the generations of people who have been watching this event. And we get 1,400 credentialed press members from around the world, much greater than New York or anyplace else.''

In fact, added Morse, after the Super Bowl, in terms of press coverage the Boston Marathon is the next largest single-day sporting event in the world.

''The key decision was to offer prize money,'' said Morse. ''That set the marathon on a new course. But the biggest challenge is to maintain the delicate balance between the prestige and tradition of the old marathon and the forces of change. It takes constant vigilance.

''After it no longer was a question of whether to offer prize money, the real question we always deal with is how much bigger does it get, how much more commercial? That's where the pressure is now.''

Many longtime marathon fans remember wistfully the years when the two John Kelleys starred in the race, when Maine's Joan Benoit and Boston's own Billy Rodgers were the marquee names, and the BAA had several runners among the top finishers.

Now (and seemingly for the forseeable future) the elite spots belong to foreign runners, with the Kenyan men dominating this decade, while the women winners have come from Europe and Africa. The price of prize money, perhaps.

Still, Morse says, other races in this country have been hurt more by foreign dominance than Boston. ''We have always been an international event,'' he said. ''We had years when the Finns or the Japanese dominated. There have been many years when the Americans were not the top finishers.

''I think over several years that will change. American athletes are learning from the Kenyans now. And to a large extent, our race has so much prestige that the Kenyans who have been winning lately become honorary Bostonians. They have become our biggest goodwill ambassadors all over the world where they race. Boston is always the premiere marathon.''

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