Tuesday, May 11, 1999

Unlikely hero for city's first big marathon

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The pig won.

        Oh sure, the official winners of Sunday's Flying Pig Marathon were Elly Rono of Kenya and UC student Sommer Settell, who each collected $1,500. But the pig is the one who took the big prize — respect, even some acclaim.

        Not to mention the last laugh.

        Perhaps the intervening years have blurred memories of the Great Flying Pig Debate. If so, please allow me to recount this curious chapter in Cincinnati's history. It began in October of 1987 with City Ordinance 314, accepting a gift of an entrance sculpture for Sawyer Point Park.

Our porky past
        The artwork included four pigs, winged and 3 feet tall. Although they represented a rather modest portion of artist Andrew Leicester's 250-foot piece, the pigs were a big item at City Hall. There was a public hearing. I am not kidding.

        At issue was whether we really wanted to wallow in our pork-packing past. “Why would a city with a team like the Bengals be worried about flying pigs?” then-Today show host Bryant Gumbel wondered uncharitably.

        Why indeed. I went to City Hall the day of the hearing in January 1988. Perhaps it was the lure of watching government at work. Perhaps it was the opportunity to sit on a really uncomfortable chair. Or it might have been simply the chance to see the pro-pig council members wearing plastic pig snouts.

        No matter. It was worth the trip.

        Dennis Barrie, who was director of the Contemporary Arts Center and chair of the committee that selected Mr. Leicester's proposal, warned that any attempt to amend the artist's work could “set a precedent that could eventually end in real censorship.”

        Two years later, of course, Mr. Barrie was tried and acquitted on obscenity charges for his role in bringing an exhibit of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe here.

        “The issue is not art,” said anti-pig spokesman Milton Bortz at the hearing, “but whether flying pigs are an appropriate image for our businesses and people going into the 20th century.” Other testimony worried that the city deserved a symbol more dignified, more noble.

        “We don't want no stinkin' pigs,” one protester said with great dignity.

Public relations pig
        Pro-pig forces prevailed, which you know if you have looked up as you are walking through the entrance to the park.

        Their cousins are all over the place. On cookbooks, on coffee mugs, on T-shirts. And, best of all, on a race that drew 6,150 runners from 47 states and nine countries. Founder Bob Coughlin says the name “helped set us apart.”

        My friend Jan, who finished the race in 5 hours and 20 minutes, says she thinks the name encouraged people who are not hard-core marathoners to sign up. “It sounded like fun.” So was it?

        “Everything, even my hair hurts,” she says. “But, yeah, I had fun.” She remembers old women banging tambourines in front of a nursing home. She remembers hearing a barbershop quartet on the bridge and some kids rapping on buckets. She claims a jug band lifted her spirits with a rendition of “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

        She may have been hallucinating.

        “The past isn't a bust of a general,” Mr. Barrie said more than 10 years ago about the Sawyer Point piggies. “The past is a stockyard worker or a canal worker. The past is common people and things, the workaday world.”

        Last Sunday, the streets of Cincinnati were filled with regular — and, happily, some irregular — people having a good time in the name of a humble creature. Out-of-towners viewing this spectacle might come to suspect that Cincinnati is a nice place, perhaps even one with a sense of humor.

        But those of us who live here really should acknowledge this decisive victory in a battle that was bitterly waged. The pig won.

        Maybe we all did.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio and on NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.