Runners and running ads at today's Boston Marathon

As I write this, the Boston Marathon is in full swing, and the crowds are cheering, as runners from around the world compete in the nation's oldest annual marathon. But a few people in the crowd are shouting, clapping and whistling louder than ever: corporate sponsors.

Hard as it may be to believe, until today, the Boston Marathon hasn't allowed advertising anywhere near their race. Not visible advertising, that is. They've had corporate sponsorship for some time, but it was always quiet and dignified. It still is.

Today, the only change is that there will be visible ads at the start and finish of the race, for the two biggest corporate sponsors: John Hancock Financial Services and Adidas AG, the German sports equipment and apparel maker. And there will be ads at the press bridge and the sides of the VIP sitting area. But will the dignified nature of corporate sponsorship last?There's certainly a less commercial feeling to the Boston Marathon race than the New York City Marathon, which made a big leap in commercialism in 2003, when the financial services company ING became the first title sponsor of the marathon. Now the race is called the ING New York City Marathon, which just seems wrong. I'm all for corporate sponsorship, and I find myself grateful to the businesses that help out -- until they wind up throwing their name into our face. Then, I begin to resent them. No offense meant to ING; I'm sure it's a nice company. But it does cheapen the experience.

Even though I'm not a huge baseball fan, I found myself ill when some time ago, the baseball stadium in Cincinnati was renamed Cinergy Field, after the local electric company, instead of generic but pleasant sounding Riverfront Stadium. Now we at least have a new stadium called the Great American Ballpark. It's named for the insurance company, Great American, but I don't care -- it's nevertheless a patriotic, cool-sounding name that doesn't immediately scream to everyone, "We're an insurance company, and we're so rich, we're putting our company's name and logo on your city's stadium."

But back to the race. A few days ago, I received a press release from Gentle Giant, a moving company that's been acting as the official mover of the Boston Marathon for 10 years now. The spokesman explained that Gentle Giant delivers more than 14 truckloads (100,000 pounds) of marathon goods and equipment, including thousands of pounds of food and water to the Boylston Street finish line, as well as elite race wheelchairs to the starting line. The Gentle Giant employees were up at 5 a.m., incidentally, to help with preparations for today's marathon, and when they finish, they'll have put in a 15-hour day.

So I think it's great that corporations get their due for helping to stage something like the prestigious Boston Marathon, and I suspect much of the public applauds it too. I just hope that no one gets carried away I'll know things have gone too far if I'm ever writing articles about the Bush's Baked Boston Beans Marathon.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist as well as the author of a book about America's weirdest marathon ever: C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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