Marathon mania

Source:Global Times-Agencies Published: 2013-12-18 19:18:01

Runners take part in the Shanghai International Marathon on December 1. Photo: CFP

The quota of 30,000 runners for the Beijing International Marathon (Beima) was filled in a matter of hours on September 8.

A similar situation occurred in the Guangzhou Marathon this year. In the first phase of registration, 3,000 names were submitted within two hours for the full marathon and the 10,000-man quota for the mini-marathon was filled in five hours. The event's website crashed several times due to the high number of visits.

Today, there are, on average, three marathons held a month on the Chinese mainland, all of which carry the label "international." The hosts have expanded from coastal and eastern cities to inland, such as Gansu Province's Lanzhou, Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinyuan county in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

While some host cities make efforts to upgrade and earn the Gold Label given by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), many more are vying for permission to become organizers.

Some commentators say the cities are blindly seeking instant fame and outside investment, prompting concerns about a bubble in the sport, while sports officials say the number of marathons currently held in China is far from enough.

Recent popularity

One major reason behind the craze is that no other sport has lower entry barriers.

"Running is the most accessible, and the cheapest, organized sport," Roger Robinson, a former world-class runner and a writer on running, was quoted as saying in a recent report on

Running in organized races has long been popular around the world, but it was only in recent years that this sport gained popularity in China. Du Zhaocai, director of the track-and-field management center of the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC), said marathons were "blossoming everywhere."

Official data shows that there were 36 marathons held this year, triple that of 2010.

Liu Zhifeng, vice general manager of the Beijing Automobile Industry Corp, a major sponsor of the Beima, was impressed by his first personal experience.

"In 2011, when the official fired the shot to start the race, an avalanche of people ran through the starting archway. The scene was rather impressive," Liu recalled to the Global Entrepreneur magazine.

China held its first marathon in Yinchuan, capital city of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, in 1959, when over 800 people joined, according to the Xinhua News Agency. However, no other marathons were held until the Beima in 1981.

Initially, Beima was only open to professional athletes. In 1998, amateur runners were allowed to join, and the half-marathon, 10-kilometer and mini-marathon events were included.

In 1999, the number of runners surged to 38,000 from a few hundred previously, according to the magazine. Gradually, following international practice, the organizers began to charge entry fees.

There were various themes for mini-marathons, including parent-child, family and lovers. The bonus for champions ranged from 20,000 yuan ($3,294) to 243,000 yuan ($40,000).

Today, it's amateur runners who make up the majority of participants. Among the 30,000 runners in the Beima on October 20, only 130 were professional athletes. Many people have become loyal runners and various running clubs have emerged.

In September, a total of 687 members of, a leading online club for running aficionados, collectively entered their names for the Hangzhou Marathon, Zhejiang-based Youth Times reported.

Zhang Liang, 30, who works at a law firm in Beijing, has run major marathons around the country for the last five years. "As well as running, I can enjoy the local landscapes of different cities," Zhang told the Youth Times.

Commercial darling

The widespread participation in the sport has attracted the attention of both enterprises and local governments. Marathons have undoubtedly become a joint platform for national fitness, brand advertising and promoting a city's image.

In addition to seeking sponsorship, many business tycoons have also joined in the events.

Chinese property developer Vanke has sponsored several marathons, including those in Shandong's Yantai and Guangxi's Nanning, as well as the Boston Marathon in the US. At this year's Boston Marathon in April, Wang Shi, Vanke's board chairman, led 15 of its employees in the run.

Octagon, a global sports marketing agency which managed Beima between 2002 and 2009, said the annual sponsorship turnover for the event has reached $2.5 million.

In addition to setting unique routes across local scenic spots and historical attractions, many hosts have also invited celebrities to join in a bid to increase their influence. On June 15, half-marathon runner Pan Shiyi, a property tycoon and celebrity blogger, ran the Lanzhou Marathon in Gansu, Pan's birthplace.

The revenues for this year's Beima came close to 30 million yuan. The Xiamen Marathon in Fujian Province has brought the city accumulated direct sales of 1 billion yuan in the past 10 years, according to the Oriental Daily. The event has also promoted local tourism and sports products consumption.

Some are also seeking to upgrade the race, including reaching the gold level attributed by the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA) and labels by the IAAF, based on criteria related to the number of elite athletes taking part, medical standards and media coverage.

To attract top athletes, the Xiamen Marathon stipulated this year that the champion who breaks the race record will be awarded $500 for each second taken off the previous mark. The runner who breaks the world record will win an additional bonus of $1 million.

Foreign runners, especially from African countries, nearly swept the table at domestic marathons, leading some track coaches to see business opportunities in China.

Tao Shaoming, former Chinese national long-distance running team coach, has operated a training camp in Kenya and brought his students to marathons in China.

In Beima this year, the runner-up came from his team. "Days later, the organizing committee of the Haikou Marathon asked me to send a dozen of my athletes to join. The Chinese market is too large. My athletes are too busy to run all of them," Tao told the China Youth Daily.

Instead of the bonus for winners, his team made much more money through sponsorship deals.

Emerging problems

While many praised marathons for becoming a new name card for Chinese cities, some were worried that placing the priority on profit would impact the sport's healthy development.

Lanzhou has been a marathon host city since 2011, but a survey issued by the Asian Development Bank in January found that Lanzhou was among the world's top 10 most air-polluted cities.

This year, runners in several marathons such as in Nanning, Hangzhou and Shanghai faced heavy smog.

Marathons have high requirements for air quality and running in bad air could even damage the heart and lungs.

"Holding marathons helps to promote national fitness. But the blossoming of marathon races in cities is more like one copying the other. The fact that nearly all races are labeled 'international' shows that attracting investment and raising the city's image have become the organizers' main pursuits," Phoenix sports commentator Maika said in an opinion piece.

Chen Hao, a reporter with the Chengdu Daily, expressed similar worries.

"The biggest benefit of the sport is to strengthen the body and maintain health. If we betray its nature and become more concerned with profiting from it, the pursuit of hasty success will be inevitable. Marathons, which appear to be thriving, may likely be a bunch of bubbles," Chen commented in the newspaper.

The management of marathons and public awareness of the sport are also being widely questioned. At the Beima on October 20, pictures showing several runners urinating along the palace wall of the Forbidden City triggered worldwide controversy.

While many participants join the race for health reasons or charitable causes, many do it just for fun or because it's the fashion, and lack proper knowledge of how to prepare for and run the race.

At the Guangzhou Marathon last year, 21-year-old Chen Jie and 25-year-old Ding Xiqiao fainted and later died in hospital. The organizer revealed that a total of 1,517 runners suffered dizziness, distress and cramps.

The University of California San Francisco medical center advises that one should only attempt a marathon if he has been running for at least a year, or is able to cover 15 to 25 miles a week comfortably or has 18 weeks to train.

Many schools and colleges in China have canceled long-distance races in their sports meetings out of safety concerns.

Duan Shijie, vice minister of the General Administration of Sport of China and president of CAA, stressed that there were not enough marathons.

"Among the top 10 economies in the world, the number of marathons in our country is the fewest. Thus, the number is far from enough," Duan told reporters at the annual marathon conference in 2012.

According to statistics from, a major online directory of races, results and clubs, there were 44,760 races in the US this year, including 928 marathons and 2,794 half marathons. Figures from show that Japan held 72 marathons while India held 127.

"The growing number of marathons is the result of economic development, civilization advancement and the public's desire to be healthy," Duan said.

Global Times-Agencies

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