For the first nine decades the elite runners at the Boston Marathon were the best who happened to show up — Clarence DeMar, Leslie Pawson, Tarzan Brown, Gerard Cote, the Kelleys. The Finns and Japanese who won the race in the ’50s and ’60s mostly were underwritten by their expatriate communities in the area. Many of those elites were Olympians and had been or would be champions — Thomas Hicks, Johnny Hayes, Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit.
But not until 1986, when the Boston Athletic Association finally offered cash, did the race truly become elite. For the first time, top runners were recruited actively, with John Hancock consultant Patrick Lynch flying around the globe to assemble a world-class field.
“The best were the best,’’ said BAA executive director Guy Morse, “and we wanted the best to run here.’’
Although prize money and consultant contracts undeniably helped attract the Husseins, Ndetis, Cheruiyots, Motas, Pippigs, Robas, and Nderebas to Hopkinton, the tradition of the world’s most celebrated marathon has proved a powerful lure.
“The selling points are history and opportunity,’’ said Lynch, who still assembles the elite fields with Mary Kate Shea handling most of the logistics. Boston offers a unique course that has changed minimally in 114 years, that has humbled gold medalists and elevated unknowns to stardom. “When you win the Boston Marathon,’’ said Lynch, “it follows you.’’
The arrival of the African runners in 1988, when nine countries designated Boston as their Olympic trials, changed the race dramatically. Athletes from Kenya (who’ve won 17 of the last 21 men’s races and six of 10 women’s) and Ethiopia have all but owned the laurel wreath. While no domestic man or woman has won here since the paid elites arrived, the Americans have been getting closer — Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher each finished third last year and Hall is back along with New York champion Meb Keflezighi. If either wins on Patriots Day, it’ll be a revolutionary breakthrough.