On course for an extended run
The number of Chinese participating in marathons is rising rapidly, leading to more long-distance races being staged and causing headaches for event organizers. Tang Yue reports.
It’s well-known that obtaining a license plate in China is so difficult that several large cities have introduced a lottery system to streamline the process. Less well-known is the fact that the “traffic” on the country’s marathon courses is so congested that many organizers have copied their urbanplanning peers and introduced their own lotteries for applicants.
This year, the organizers of the Beijing International Marathon, which introduced a lottery for competition berths in 2014, had more than 66,000 applications for 30,000 places in the event. Less than 20 percent of applicants for the lowest-ability group were successful.
To meet the growing demand from runners, the number of full marathons in China has skyrocketed from 22 in 2011 to more than 120 this year, according to statistics provided by the Chinese Athletic Association. Moreover, a growing number of Chinese are traveling overseas to compete; more than 600 participated in the New York City Marathon in November, and 600-plus turned up for the Tokyo Marathon in February.
The rise in participantion is being seen as an indication that China, with its expanding middle class, is running toward a healthier lifestyle. However, although the number of long-distance races is not excessive in a country the size of China, the sport’s rapid development has given rise to controversy. That’s because some local governments want to promote their city by hosting an event, but they pay insufficient attention to race-related services, and in some cases they allow unlicensed agents to invite competitors from overseas, according to experts.
“The rapid rise in the number of marathons and runners is a natural result of the improvement in living standards. For example, Shenzhen alone hosts six marathons a year and people can take part in races in the city almost every weekend. In comparison, the number of full marathon races in the United States is about 1,000 a year,” said Zhao Pu, an officer with the athletic association’s marathon department, referring to the Guangdong province city which borders Hong Kong.
He predicted that the number of races will continue to rise next year, but the sport’s development will be more “reasonable” in the coming years, resulting in the gradual elimination of a number of less professionally run races.
According to Zhao, organizers who pay about $1 million to broadcast their marathon live on China Central Television every year in the hope of making it a “name card” for their city are wasting their resources.
“How many people want to spend hours in front of the TV watching a road race? For many of the organizers, it’s not a wise decision, and it would be much better if they invested the money in upgrading the services they provide during the event,” he said.
According to Li Zicheng, a former national team marathon runner and winner of the 2010 Shanghai International Marathon, more than half the long-distance events in China have the word “international” in their titles. As a result, some smaller races use unlicensed agents to invite foreign runners, mostly from Africa, to compete. The agents share the prize money if their athlete wins, so it’s natural for them to invite the best runners available.
“I don’t have an issue with African runners at all. It’s just that professional races should be better regulated,” Li said.
Tao Shaoming, one of China’s best-known agents for marathon runners, said a more professional infrastructure would help to ensure the sport’s sustainable development. “While the marathon is a professional sport worldwide, it is still young in China.” he said.
In 2012, Tao, a former national team coach, opened his first training camp in Kenya. Now, he has five camps in Africa, where he trains about 300 athletes. As an agent, he has signed more than 20 elite runners, including Mulu Seboka, winner of the 2014 Dubai Marathon, and Mariko Kipchumba, winner of the 2015 Beijing International Marathon.
Many of the foreign athletes on Tao’s books compete in China regularly, but in recent years he has also taken Chinese runners to participate in events overseas. He said the sight of African runners dominating marathon races isn’t unique to China, but applies to most major events across the globe: “It’s just like in table tennis, where Chinese players are playing everywhere and collecting most of the medals.”
According to Zhao, many marathon organizers motivate the runners to deliver their best performances by making prize money dependent not only on their result but also their finishing time.
At the Beijing International Marathon, the prize money for the winning male athlete doubles from $20,000 to $40,000 if he finishes the course within 2 hours and 9 minutes, while the bar for women is 2 hours and 25 minutes. In addition, many organizers give special awards to top local runners, irrespective of their place at the finish line.
Sun Yingjie, who won the Beijing International Marathon from 2003 to 2005, said it is common practice for events to invite a number of high-class participants because record winning times are a good indication of an event’s standing. However, she said it’s not necessary for all events to “go global”, and many would be better served by emphasizing local attrac- tions and amenities to help the local community.
She accepted that African athletes may have a number of inherent advantages (such as greater lung capacity), but said China has a lot to learn from Japan. At a half-marathon in Ageo, in Japan’s central region, on Nov 20, more than 360 runners finished the 21.09-km course within 70 minutes.
“It’s incredible. Only about a hundred Chinese runners in total could reach that level,” she said. “These amazing performances are the result of education and the Japanese habit of physical exercise, which starts in early childhood.”
Taller, but fatter
Although the growth in marathon running may suggest a push for better, healthier lifestyles, it could in fact be obscuring a decline in physical fitness among young people. According to the government-backed 2016 Annual Report on the Development of Youth Sports in China, although young Chinese have become taller in the past three decades, they have also grown fatter and their physical abilities — such as strength, speed and lung capacity — are worse than they were 30 years ago.
Moreover, “fear of using up study time” was the top reason students gave for not engaging in any of the 13 sporting activities listed, and it was the top concern for 30 percent of respondents ages 13 to 15, the report said.
Despite the problems, Sun believes the growing marathon trend can only be beneficial to the country. “Hopefully it will make us a healthier and happier nation, which, after all, is much more important than anything else” she said.
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It’s just like in table tennis, where Chinese players are playing everywhere and collecting most of the medals. Tao Shaoming, former coach of the Chinese marathon team
Marathon lovers participate in an international competition in Zhejiang province last year.
Tao Shaoming, marathon coach and agent, instructs athletes at his training camp in Kenya in 2014.