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Running For Prestige - And Money ‘Amateur’ Really A Misnomer In Two Special Weekend Races

Associated Press

The dollar figure becomes all-important in track this weekend and the International Amateur Athletic Federation an ever-bigger misnomer.

Just ask Noureddine Morceli and Haile Gebrselassie, who race in Hengelo, the Netherlands, today. Or Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey, who run in Toronto on Sunday.

The 2-mile race between the two African champions at the Dutch Adriaan Paulen Memorial offers $1 million to the winner if he dips under the 8-minute barrier. Kenya’s Daniel Komen holds the world mark at 8:03.54.

Sunday, Johnson and Bailey clash over the 150 meters - another rarely run distance - with another $1 million going to the victor. Each sprinter is also assured $500,000 in appearance money.

Critics charge it is turning track, steeped in almost a century of tradition, into a circus. Defenders say with track going through a crisis in the United States, drastic times call for drastic measures.

“A circus is show and professionalism,” said Hengelo meet organizer Jos Hermens. “Races like that provide something extra. It is what the sport needs.”

Apart from the two races this weekend, the IAAF world track federation will offer prize money at the world outdoors championships for the first time in Athens Aug. 1-10.

It will offer some $19 million in prize money the next two years and winners in Athens will earn $60,000 each.

Still it’s a far cry from this dollar-crazed weekend.

“I’ve never seen so much money in one place,” said Gebrselassie. “There’s never been this kind of money for one race.”

But in a season where “show me the money” has become a fashionable quote, money is just about all there is on show. Just high-powered, high-paying races with debatable prestige.

Today’s race pits Algeria’s Morceli, the Olympic and triple 1,500 world champion and holder of the 1,500 and mile world record, against Ethiopian Gebrselassie, the Olympic and double 10,000 meter world champion who holds the 5,000 meter world record.

But running over 2 miles will hardly prove the winner to be the fastest man over any given distance, since other top potential challengers, including Moroccans Hisham El Guerrouj and Salah Hissou and Kenya’s Komen, are not competing.

The race will not be a straight head-to-head like the Johnson-Bailey clash, but will include three pacesetters and a half-dozen other runners, who should all be far from sight when Morceli and Gebrselassie enter the final two laps.

“I rate the chances at over 50 percent” to break the 8-minute barrier, Hermens said.

Since Morceli is a middle distance specialist and much of Gebrselassie’s fame is based on long distance successes, the Algerian has been seen as the slight favorite going into the event.

But Gebrselassie has already set world records twice in the city close on the German border and is an annual favorite at the meet, where 22,000 people are expected to cheer him on.

For the IAAF it is a weekend to ponder whether its name is still appropriate.

Founded in 1912, it basically grouped athletes whose privileged position in society allowed them to compete “for love and other noble principles,” the official IAAF history reads.

Now amateur no longer applies and dollars do, but IAAF president Primo Nebiolo still controls the increasingly professional sport.

“If a big company puts up $1 million, is it not a sign that track and field is very important,” he asked.

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