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With eye on Olympics, BAA on track to boost its profile

With backing from adidas and a top coach, the BAA, Boston’s historic running club, aims to turn the city into a proving ground for marquee events worldwide

Above from left: Jen Rhines, Juliet Bottorff, and Katie Matthews worked in some laps on a track at Harvard University in Allston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Boston Athletic Association's iconic unicorn logo will be everywhere this Marathon Monday. If all goes as planned, you will be seeing more of that mythical horned stallion on other days, too.

For decades, the club has been known for hosting the annual Boston Marathon — but not for much else. Now, however, the BAA wants to be recognized as a club that produces world-class middle- and long-distance runners who compete in events ranging from 800-meter races to marathons.

With funding from adidas, the club last fall recruited
a small group of promising athletes, most of them recent college graduates, to join the new BAA High Performance Team, which travels to marquee races all over the world.


The pitch was simple: Move to Boston, train with renowned coach Terrence Mahon, and help the BAA recapture Olympic glory. Seven BAA members won a combined nine medals at the first modern Games in 1896, but the club has not produced a medalist in more than half a century.

"It harkens back to the origins of the BAA, going all the way
back to the first modern Olympics," said Tom Grilk, the club's executive director. "It fits the mission of the BAA to promote health and fitness by giving people a model to look at. It captures interest and attention."

Launching a program for elite runners also fits into
a broader effort by the BAA to raise its public profile. Last week, the club joined adidas and the local retailer Marathon Sports in opening a new store on Boylston Street in the Back Bay that doubles as a Boston Marathon museum and a free locker room for runners.

On days when he isn't putting his charges through intense interval workouts, Mahon plans to bring some of the 11-member high-performance team to the store, dubbed Boston Marathon RunBase, allowing recreational runners to meet some of the world's best or even join them on a jog.


Harvard’s Ellery Harding Clark posed at the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.Associated Press File Photo

For adidas, the commingling of running enthusiasts and sponsored athletes — in branded apparel, of course — seems a worthwhile investment. The company covers most team expenses, including for gear, travel, housing assistance, training stipends, and performance bonuses. The BAA pays for the rest, though Grilk declined to provide details of the arrangement.

"It's going to show people how dedicated we are to runners and their goals," adidas running director Chris Brewer said of the partnership. "We want people to join this community that will help them achieve their goals, and I think adidas will organically get credit for getting this all together."

Between its racing schedule and the appearances at RunBase, the team could elevate the standing of both the BAA and adidas in the running world, said Christopher Cakebread, a professor of mass communication and public relations at Boston University who has studied sports marketing and the Olympics.

"Of course, the key is whether the runners they sponsor and produce can stand with and above the Nike-sponsored runners and the many others who are world-famous," he said.

Indeed, Nike's Oregon Project, which produced Galen Rupp, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters, is more established. And there are other elite development clubs with big-name shoe sponsors, including the Central Park Track Club in New York (New Balance) and the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., (Asics) where Mahon used to coach.


But Mahon's new crew is off to a strong start.

Jen Rhines, a three-time Olympian and the team's most experienced runner, finished third at the USA Cross Country Championships in February. Elaina Balouris, a former All-American who graduated from William and Mary last spring, took sixth. Both went on to the world championships in China in March.

Although no one on the team will compete in Monday's Boston Marathon — the athletes are training for shorter distances right now — four women and three men already have qualified for next year's Olympic marathon trials based on their half-marathon times.

Mahon, a former national team coach, acknowledged some doubts about building an elite program in Boston but said he is convinced the city is ideal, even after a winter that refused to end.

"When I first came here, I was like, 'Where do you train in Boston? All I've ever done is run along the river,' " he said. "Then they showed me all these places and I was like, 'This is incredible.' Now I understand why Boston was such a great hub when I was a kid, the old days of Bill Rodgers."

Mahon's young runners don't remember those days. But they have bought into the history and — more important to them — the chance at a medal-winning future.

"It's a unique opportunity to be part of something that's almost like a startup," said Emily Lipari, a 2014 Villanova grad and former All-American at 1,500 meters. "Plus we have the coolest uniforms. Hashtag #UnicornNation."


High jumper John Thomas, the BAA’s last Olympic medalist, waved to the crowd in Tokyo in 1964.Associated Press File Photo

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.