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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

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.

Wasted re­sources

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.

Con­tact the writer at tangyue@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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

LYU BIN FOR CHINA DAILY

Marathon lovers par­tic­i­pate in an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in Zhe­jiang prov­ince last year.

JANE CHOU FOR CHINA DAILY

Tao Shaom­ing, marathon coach and agent, in­structs ath­letes at his train­ing camp in Kenya in 2014.

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