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What You Know About How Running Became a Pro Sport Is Only Half the Truth

The alternative story of how, 40 years ago, running escaped from its amateur restrictions and became a modern, professional sport.

Running went professional 40 years ago. Most of us know the story – how the 1981 Cascade Run Off 15K in Portland, Oregon, with funding from Nike, defied the stuffy old federations, paid prize money to the top runners, and overcame one hundred years of restriction and hypocrisy. This year, we celebrated the date, June 28. A 40th anniversary “Cascade Run Off Redux” was held, and Don Kardong, leader of the Cascade rebels, published on Road Race Management, 10 June 2021, an authoritative narrative of “the race that changed everything.” 

But what if it didn’t? What if there is another narrative of how things changed that year, an alternative story that no one seems to know? What if another, possibly better, version of professionalism was on the table, and some of the despised villains were, in fact, silent heroes? What if the date we should be celebrating is not June 28, but September 2, 1981?

That was the day the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF, now World Athletics), at its Congress in Rome, voted to change the meaning of the word “amateur,” and succeeded. This is the untold story of how that decision happened.  

How Kiwis Spearheaded the Reformation of Amateurism

The IAAF began to debate amateurism in 1974, and in 1976 dropped the rules forbidding commercial enterprises or endorsements. That meant Ron Hill in the UK, and Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter in the US, could create apparel lines, and in New Zealand John Walker became the well-paid front man for “it’s gotta be good for you” Fresh-Up fruit drink, with a share of the fee going to his national federation. 

The reform process continued in 1980, when the IAAF set up an “Amateurism Working Group.” That group consulted the IAAF’s more than 200 international members, asking for responses to a proposal to delete the word “amateur” from the constitution. In other words, to end amateurism by simply removing the word. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The powerful Soviet bloc was eager to keep their rivals constrained by old-fashioned amateurism, while popping its own full-time elites into cosy berths in the military.      

More liberal nations jumped at the chance to drop amateurism. On March 5, 1981 (three months before the Cascade Run Off ), the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association (NZAAA) voted to inform the IAAF that it was in favor of “liberalising the amateur laws” (NZAAA Annual Report, 1980-81, p. 17). After consulting its members and producing a visionary sub-committee report that received almost total consensus, NZAAA was able to inform the IAAF by July 7 that New Zealand agreed to “liberalise the amateur laws by permitting the payment of prize money and the arranging of advertising contracts.” You can’t get more specific than that, nor more utterly radical. It was all happening rapidly.  

And so onto the Special IAAF Congress in Rome. There, six motions were passed, the key one amending the “amateur rule,” Rule 51. Instead of deleting “amateur,” they redefined the word: “one who abides by the eligibility rule of the IAAF.”  

It was semantic nonsense but political genius. It outwitted the Soviets and it dodged the Olympics hurdle, since the IAAF would be able endorse athletes as “amateurs,” yet had only to amend its “eligibility rule” to make “amateur” mean whatever it wanted. An “amateur” could thus accept prize money, for example, and remain eligible.

Another vote extended the “material assistance” permitted to amateurs to include not only travel and accommodation, but “education and professional training,” at last putting all nationalities on equal footing with the Soviets. And another vote acknowledged the transitional device of prize money being held and disbursed by federations, when “Congress agreed in principle to permit members to set up Trust Funds.” 

That useful idea came in part out of the Cascade crisis. No one (well, almost no one – we’ll get to that) wanted to see great runners banned, so there was a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiating. Frank Shorter in America is known to have proposed the Trust Fund device, but it was also discussed in England in July 1981 between IAAF secretary John Holt and Ian Boyd, later chairman of New Zealand AAA. Those talks came after three New Zealand athletes had been prominent in the Cascade rebellion.

That is the alternative storyline, every detail a matter of fully-documented record. Change was proposed, debated, amended, voted on, and accomplished. Not as sexy as the story we’ve all come to know, but agendas and minutes can be exciting reading if you understand the issues. Even more exciting if you know the personalities who did the debating and voting, since their characteristics and perspectives can (and did) change history. But media attention in 1981, and received history ever since, have been all about the Cascade rebellion. 

Black and white photo of John Holt racing in the 1960s.
John Holt (1), who would become a key figure on the move to professionalism as IAAF secretary, races for Oxford University, about 1960. (Photo: courtesy Roger Robinson)

The Sensationalization of the Cascade Rebellion

The perplexing thing about Cascade is that no one involved in its act of passionate defiance seemed to be aware of what was happening internationally. The global consultation process was as good as completed by June 28, but no one at Cascade had noticed. New Zealand forwarded its proposal for direct prize money to the IAAF on July 7, most other nations’ responses were similarly supportive, and it was only two months to September 2 when changes as fundamental as deleting the word “amateur” were on the agenda. Yet the Cascade rebels truly believed they were “changing everything” and bravely standing for their rights against an intransigent establishment. 

The main reason for this disconnect was perhaps that Cascade was only about road running: a vigorous new-born giant that was symbiotically related to track and field athletics, yet on a wholly different model. Mass city marathons and road races boomed worldwide in the 1970s, and their sheer participant numbers, and related sponsorships, created a new industry, and potential income stream for top road runners. 

Furthermore, Cascade was only about the United States. It was a complication no one had thought of when three New Zealanders took the top women’s places and prize money. All the wrath of the ARRA (Association of Road Racing Athletes) before and at Cascade was directed against The Athletics Congress (TAC), today named USATF. No one ever mentioned the IAAF. 

A starting line image of the 1981 Cascade Run Off.
The start of the 1981 Cascade Run Off 15K in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Don Wilson)

The Role of Commercial Corporate Interests

And Cascade was not only an idealistic challenge on behalf of ill-treated athletes. In his 2008 book, “Out of Nowhere. The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running,” Geoff Hollister of Nike wrote of seeing the need in 1981 “to take a stand [against the IAAF].” Kardong’s informed article reveals, “On the eve of the Cascade Run Off, ARRA [funded by Nike] announced a six-race series that included the Cascade Run Off, Nike Marathon, Virginia 10 Miler, Boston Marathon, Lasse Viren International and Orange Bowl Festival Run, with prize money ranging from $30,000 to $100,000. ARRA had thrown down the gauntlet.”

That sounds more like D-Day than a throwing down of the gauntlet. If those takeovers had come about, Nike would have occupied some of the most strategic territory in the booming economy of American road running. It’s intriguing to see the Boston Marathon as part of the plan.  

Consequences resulting from Cascade, some of which have become part of the familiar narrative, need to be investigated in the light of the official documents now available for the first time. 

The minutes of New Zealand’s management board on July 7 reveal how the two storylines ran in parallel. They agreed to forward to the IAAF their radical proposal to permit direct prize money. At the same meeting, they also had to consider the problem of the three New Zealand athletes who had infringed the existing rules by accepting prize money at Cascade. You can understand why the ardent proponents of professionalism felt Cascade was ill-timed. The delicate global process could have been derailed by the threat of commercial corporate interests taking control of the sport, displacing democratic national federations (the “stand” or “gauntlet”).  

The IAAF itself, led at that point by the moderate Adriaan Paulen as President, was only too aware of this political context. Another big shoe company was lobbying for a coup by Italy’s Primo Nebiolo to take over the IAAF Presidency. A September vote for professionalism would help the Federation retain control of the developing sport against these commercial challenges. To try to find a smooth progress around the Cascade confrontation, Holt of the IAAF proposed the compromise device of having two separate finish lines at Cascade. The race declined.  

New Zealand had an awkward problem: dealing with the defiant infringements by three of its most beloved athletes against rules that it was leading the global campaign to change. That story has often been told, but not with the new hard evidence. It was quite a roller coaster. 

Old photo of runner in red at a road race in the '80s.
New Zealand runner Anne Audain wins the 1981 Cascade Run Off and the $10,000 first place price that went along with it. (Photo: Don Wilson)

The Fates of the Kiwi Rebels and Amateurism

NZAAA’s sensible first decision on July 7 was to delay action on the rebels and seek further information. They invited all parties to comment. The responses are archived.  

The three rebels wrote various explanations, each indicating that they had put the prize money in Trust Funds or a special account. The IAAF, via Holt and Paulen, urged caution. The Athletic Congress’s chief executive Ollan Cassell, by stark contrast, sent a blunt pronouncement that the athletes had already been banned: 

“We have withdrawn the authority for [the three] to participate any further in USA TAC-sanctioned events. They have violated international rules…and since their participation is under our authority, we have removed that from them…I would hope you would advise them as soon as possible not to compete in any further events in the United States” (Cassell/TAC to NZAAA, 20 July 1981)

A curious, rather passive-aggressive way to end such a dictatorial statement. It sounds like Cassell was simply urging other people to tell the athletes that he has banned them. 

Very strangely, so far as I can establish, none of the Cascade rebel athletes were ever told by Cassell/TAC that he had banned them. Anne Audain and Lorraine Moller report gleefully in their books that they were able to go around the United States competing as usual. Some race directors became anxious because a so-called “contamination” rule in theory enabled the IAAF to ban any athlete who competed in the same race as a “professional.” Part of the sensible Holt’s response was to question the practicability of that rule, when it would mean banning six thousand innocent runners. 

Cassell’s draconian rigidity unfortunately found receptive ears with the new chairman of NZAAA, a fair-minded but old-fashioned rules-oriented official called Geoff Jackman. Sometimes personality alters history. This is one of those times. 

At the August 4 monthly management board, Jackman, whose style was authoritarian, insisted that by defiantly breaking the rules, the three rebels left no option but to ban them, which he believed, from Cassell’s messages, TAC had already done. Concerned about the risk of all New Zealand athletes being banned in the United States, including students on scholarships, the meeting voted with him.

The deed was done, and quickly repented. The media went into a frenzy. The next day, another fax from Holt arrived, questioning the “contamination rule” and, significantly, distancing the IAAF from Cassell’s belligerence.

“Ollan is pushing very hard for a hard line to be taken and will no doubt have a lot to say in Rome…We will discuss this with Ian Boyd and others in Rome.” Side-stepping Cassell’s “hard line,” Holt hoped for  “clear thinking and positive safeguards for the future.” (Holt for IAAF to NZAAA, 5 August, 1981)

Four days later on August 9, a bombshell letter arrived from Allison Roe’s (one of the rebels) lawyer. Scathingly, it exposed NZAAA for failing to follow the IAAF’s own required procedures for imposing a ban (one week’s notice, right of representation, right to attend, etc). The letter threatened High Court action. 

At that point, Jackman, with a legal egg on his face, went on holiday leaving a large, noisy, and very smelly baby for someone to hold. The job fell to Alan Stevens, a conscientious, astute, and athlete-oriented official. (And still a fully active runner himself.)  Stevens called an emergency meeting on August 18: “In view of new information received from the IAAF, it is considered that the decision made on 4 August may have been made precipitately.”  

Working from handwritten notes, Stevens covered the IAAF’s flexibility, its distancing from Cassell and hope for clear thinking, the threat of legal action from Roe’s lawyer, and the importance of not damaging the move to professionalism at IAAF. Concluding that “our athletes were badly advised,” Stevens was able to persuade the meeting to rescind the August 4 bans. 

So the historical record is that the three athletes were banned for two weeks, August 4 -18, 1981. For several reasons there was some confusion about whether an international ban was still in effect, but essentially Jackman’s mistake had been patched, the Kiwi athletes were free to compete (Roe won the New York City Marathon on October 25) and the IAAF was able to move forward to its crucial decisions in Rome.  

Not that it was perfectly smooth sailing from there. Reports have it that Nebiolo thumped the table and demanded that the Cascade rebels be banned. But the inevitable prevailed. On September 2, 1981, the word “amateur” was redefined, and the sports of track and field and running were opened to prize money and professionalism. 

About the Author 

Roger Robinson’s When Running Made History has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever. An elite runner who set Boston and New York masters records, he has also been Olympic television commentator, stadium announcer, coach, journalist, author, and historian. “My goal always is to find the best words to describe running, because running is so important in so many lives,” he says. He wrote Running in Literature, Heroes and Sparrows, 26.2 Marathon Stories, and literary-scholarly works. He is Emeritus Professor at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which awards annual Roger Robinson Scholarships.