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The Podium

The mayor and the marathon

During the 113th Boston Marathon in 2009, Mayor Thomas Menino crowns men’s winner Deriba Merga. Globe Photo/John Tlumacki.

During the 113th Boston Marathon in 2009, Mayor Thomas Menino crowns men’s winner Deriba Merga. Globe Photo/John Tlumacki.

Boston’s next mayor will have a tough act to follow.

The reign of Thomas M. Menino has been long and productive. Many neighborhoods and organizations have flourished during his time in office, none more so than the Boston Athletic Association and its signature event, the Marathon.

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One of April’s enduring images is the sight of the Mayor and Mrs. Menino sitting in the front row of the grandstands at the Marathon finish line. They look like proud parents at a child’s sporting event.

While governors of the Commonwealth come and go, the Meninos are fixtures, essential pieces of the Patriots’ Day mosaic. Regardless of the weather or health issues, the Meninos get to their seats early, and, after the mayor crowns the male winner, remain in the emptying stands to validate and applaud the triumphs of the four and five hour runners.

But what happens next? Will future winners of the Marathon be regarded as pretenders because Tom Menino did not officiate at their coronations?

In 1993, when Menino took office, the BAA was finally getting back on its feet, thanks primarily to the funds provided by John Hancock and other sponsors. Even so, the BAA remained a one-trick pony, staging the Marathon on the third Monday in April and slumbering for the balance of the year.

Once an athletic powerhouse in its own right (BAA members constituted a majority of the 1896 US Olympic team), the 126-year-old BAA lost virtually everything in the Great Depression. All that survived was the Marathon and an indoor track meet that succumbed in the 1960s.

The 100th running of the Marathon took place in 1996, a year that marked something of a turnaround for the BAA. With the consent of Menino and the municipal officials along the course, the field ballooned to a one-time high of 38,706 entrants.

Equally noteworthy was the April 14, 1996, unveiling of the Marathon monument in Copley Square. Since its creation in the 19th century, the Square had become sacred ground with a multiplicity of citizens groups vying with each other to defend and preserve it. Proposed changes to the Square are regarded with justifiable suspicion.

Without Menino in its corner, the BAA’s efforts to do anything in the area where the Marathon has traditionally finished would have gone nowhere.

Following that watershed year, the BAA added a fall half marathon (the course follows Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace) and a summer 10K that is run through the Back Bay. In addition, the BAA hosted the 2008 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials on a newly-created loop course, and changed the marathon weekend fun run into a timed 5K race with prize money.

Perhaps the most engaging of the new events are the mile and 1K races among boys and girls selected from the eight cities and towns along the Marathon course. None of this would have gotten off the drawing board without a thumbs-up from Menino.

On a personal level, I have thoroughly enjoyed my dealings with the mayor. He has been accessible, reasonable and consistently supportive of the BAA, and, no, I am not looking for a building permit. Nor am I related, by blood or marriage, to either of the Meninos.

My favorite interaction with the mayor took place at the aptly-named Mayor’s Reception, a party that’s held at the Fairmont Copley Plaza on Saturday night of marathon weekend.

As president of the BAA, I was presenting the mayor with a token of the BAA’s esteem. The object was almost certainly a plaque or a framed something. A sacrificial bullock would have been more appropriate.

The mayor accepted my undoubtedly unexceptional offering with his customary good grace, but I could see a bubble forming over his head containing the words, “What am I supposed to do with another one of these?”

At that point, I assumed the ceremony was over. It was not. The mayor reached into his blazer pocket and then handed me a small blue box containing a set of cuff links bearing the seal of the City of Boston.

“They’re special,” said the Mayor in a gruff but affectionate tone of voice. Indeed they are.

The formalities at the Mayor’s Reception typically conclude with His Honor announcing that the Marathon signals the return of spring to Boston.

But, what happens after the mayor becomes a civilian? Will spring dare enter the city without Menino’s prior authorization?

Frank Porter is a former president of the Boston Athletic Association.
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