One year after 2,000-odd runners sprinted or limped across the finish line, the defunct and discredited Denver International Marathon continues to keep the pulse of Denver city officials pounding. The most recent headache comes from south of the border.
Three weeks ago Mexico's consul general in Denver, Ambassador Leonardo Ffrench, sent a letter to Mayor Wellington Webb reminding him how runners from Mexico had dominated the grueling 1993 race--and that not one of them has received a cent of the promised prize money. Ffrench concluded by asking for Webb's help in paying the $21,000 in winnings owed the runners from, if necessary, the city's own checkbook.
Webb spokesman Briggs Gamblin says that city officials have tried--unsuccessfully--to scare up the money from private sources. He adds that because the race was organized by a private corporation, the city has no obligation to pay.
In an October 13 letter, Webb told Ffrench that "such expenditure would be characterized as discharging a purely moral obligation and...the charter forbids the expenditure of public funds for purely moral obligations, no matter how compelling."
Ffrench, however, has interpreted the city's obligation to the Mexican athletes differently. He claims that, at bottom, Webb and the city are responsible to do right by the Mexican runners. "It was not Denver that organized the marathon," Ffrench says. "But the mayor acted as a guarantor."
The Mexican government is serious about collecting the prizes, Ffrench says. Just how serious, he adds, was amply demonstrated recently, when the Mexican Athletic Federation asked the International Amateur Athletic Federation to urge an athlete boycott of all races held in Colorado until the Mexican winners are paid.
Last October's marathon was the first in what was to become an annual gallop through Denver's streets, and most people associated with the race agree that the event itself came off splendidly. Yet it was not long after the last water cup had been swept from the streets that Denver International Marathon Inc., the for-profit corporation that had organized the event, hit the wall.
First came the news that the off-duty Denver cops who worked security for the race had not been paid. Next to come up empty were the race's winners, owed a total of $50,000 in prize money. By the time various vendors and workers had joined the chorus of complaints, DIM's unpaid tab had swollen to nearly $250,000.
Most of the anger was vented in the direction of DIM president Jeffrey Fryer, who came to Denver from Los Angeles, where he had worked for the well-regarded and highly successful Los Angeles marathon. Unfortunately, any lessons Fryer learned there apparently were lost on the way to Denver.
Especially troubling about the trail of debt was that Fryer, an accountant by training, had collected what fellow organizers said was plenty of money to pull off the Denver International Marathon ("Running on Empty," January 26). As of last week, however, the only creditors who have been paid are the Denver police, who last March received an anonymous donation to cover their $47,000 in bills.
As his company unraveled, it was revealed that Fryer was no stranger to federal bankruptcy courts. Over the past ten years he has filed for protection from his creditors three times, in California and in Denver. Despite its overwhelming bills, however, Denver International Marathon Inc. has not yet sought protection under bankruptcy laws. Instead, it has quietly withered and died.
Fryer, who did not return calls from Westword, appears to have simply walked away from the mess. Several people who have spoken to him recently say he claims to have lost $200,000 of his own money on the Denver race. Yet they also contend that Fryer hardly seems to have suffered from DIM's red-splashed balance sheet and jilted creditors.
Lesley Fuller, who worked with Fryer in Los Angeles and then came to Denver to help organize the Denver International Marathon, says her former boss--from whom she parted on nonspeaking terms--currently works for Playboy magazine, arranging for sporty Playmates to run in high-profile races. Fuller says she also heard that Fryer recently returned from a six-week vacation in Australia.
Jane Welzel also has made it her business to keep tabs on Jeffrey Fryer. That's because she was under the impression that her third-place finish in the Denver marathon's women's open category would earn her a $3,000 prize. Since getting stiffed, however, she has dogged Fryer, calling him periodically at his Santa Monica office to ask when she'll be seeing the check.
"He just keeps telling me he has plans to pay us," she says. Welzel last spoke to Fryer in June, when he told her again that she could expect to see her money soon, probably in six months. Still, she's not confident. "I would prefer if he would just say, `Look, I have no intention of paying you.'"
Fryer's reputation was not helped any when, three weeks ago, Los Angeles Marathon Inc. agreed to pay a $436,000 fine to two California election-watchdog agencies to settle charges that the company had laundered $73,000 in campaign contributions between 1989 and 1992. Although Fryer was not named in the investigation, he was LAM's accountant through 1991, when he was fired by director Bill Burke.
More threatening to Fryer's immediate financial security may be Karen Verkutis, whose Denver company Corporate Images manufactured clothing for the Denver marathon but was left holding a $43,000 bill. Verkutis says she's filed a suit against Fryer.
Gamblin says the city does not intend to put any official pressure on Fryer. He explains that the city had no connection to Denver International Marathon Inc., save the $20,000 licensing fee it collected from Fryer and a contract with Fryer to run the event through 1997. The city pulled out of the deal at the end of last February when it became clear that its off-duty cops were not going to get paid.
Consul General Ffrench sees the city's role in the Denver International Marathon differently. He insists that Webb and the city are at least honor-bound to guarantee the financial commitments of the race. To begin with, he says that City Hall tacitly backed the event when it lent its name to it. "If it wasn't the Denver International Marathon," argues Ffrench, "nobody would have come."
In addition, Ffrench points to an agreement both he and Webb signed last year agreeing to promote cooperation between the Mexico City International Marathon and DIM. The agreement started out well: Organizers for the two events paid expenses for the exchange of elite runners to each race. This summer, however, when DIM's Mexican winners--both the men's and women's open divisions were won by runners from Mexico--had yet to see their checks, officials of the Mexico City event asked Ffrench to intervene.
Ffrench says the missing prize money is more than just a matter of international pride. The women's open division was won by Emma Cabrera. "After she won the race, Emma began construction of a home in Tlaxcala for herself and her parents, trusting that she'd get her prize," says Ffrench. "But she's had to suspend construction of her house because she doesn't have the money."
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Most local race organizers don't take the Mexican Athletic Federation's request for an International Amateur Athletic Federation boycott seriously. Creigh Kelley, president of BKB Ltd., a local athletic-event organizing company, says that for starters, the IAAF--a confederation of national athletic federations--has no actual power to enforce such an action. In addition, he predicts that it is unlikely the IAAF will choose to get involved in what is a relatively small-potatoes dispute.
That doesn't mean a boycott couldn't happen. Fuller says the Mexican Athletic Federation, which wields strict authority over its country's athletes, could enforce a boycott by Mexican runners if it chose to do so. Although Colorado does not host many major prize-money races--the Bolder Boulder may be the only one--"it would be embarrassing, especially for such a sports-minded state, to be boycotted," she says.
That fear--and the bad case of public-relations shinsplints Fryer and DIM have given the state's running community--has prompted a handful of former DIM organizers to take matters into their own hands. On October 30 Denver will host a half-marathon organized by Fuller, Kelley and the Rocky Mountain Road Runners. Five dollars from each entry fee is to go toward a fund to pay the DIM winners their prize money. Kelley says he hopes to attract more than 1,000 runners.
Race organizers make it clear, however, that their efforts do not let Fryer off the hook. A disclaimer at the bottom of the race entry form states, "Funds raised from this event in no way exempt Denver International Marathon Inc. from its obligation to pay the prize money owed its winners.