Marathon whips up mania in China, but runaway popularity comes at a cost

The roaring demand for the Beijing Marathon, the country's oldest race founded in 1981, is symptomatic of the boom.
The roaring demand for the Beijing Marathon, the country's oldest race founded in 1981, is symptomatic of the boom.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (China Daily/Asia News Network) - China's ever-growing fascination with fitness has triggered a marathon craze among the country's health-conscious middle class, but lax management has often meant race organisers have struggled to keep pace with the demand for their events.

Whether it's throngs of participants jogging past Tiananmen Square during the Beijing Marathon or sweat-soaked amateurs plodding the trails of the Olympic Forest Park, disciples of distance running are now a daily part of life in the Chinese capital.

The roaring demand for the Beijing Marathon, the country's oldest race founded in 1981, is symptomatic of the boom.

The 37th edition of the race last month attracted 98,687 applicants for 30,000 places, up 48 per cent on the previous year, with organisers the China Olympic Road Running Co. using an online lottery to determine the starting list.

However, sometimes a runner needs more than just luck to secure a spot in a race.

Before the 2016 Nanjing International Marathon in November, local media reported that a second-hand place in the event's half-marathon sold for 1,999 yuan (S$409) on shopping portal Taobao. The official registration fee was 80 yuan.

Bragging about your marathon participation is a sure-fire way to boost your social-media status, too, as evidenced by the one-billion-plus views of photos and posts bearing the hashtag #Beijing Marathon# on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like service, on the day of this year's race.

"The Beijing Marathon has become a phenomenon larger than just the race itself thanks to the growing awareness of mass fitness and the promotional effect on social-media platforms," said Wang Jian, general manager of China Olympic Road Running Co.

SOCIAL AND ACCESSIBLE

Wu Hongtao, a senior executive at sports promotion agency InFront China

Running's allure for Chinese urbanites centres on its accessibility and sociability, according to Wu Hongtao, a senior executive at Infront China, a major sports organizing and promoting agency.

"No other sport has a lower entry requirement than running. All you need is a pair of running shoes and you can go hit the road, regardless of age or gender," said Wu, an experienced runner himself.

"There's a strong sense of accomplishment after finishing a run, whether it's a 5k or a marathon, and that's proving highly contagious thanks to social media.

"Once you take up running, it's easy to contact like-minded enthusiasts on social-networking platforms such as WeChat.

"The sense of belonging and the mutual encouragement that exists within the running community is very enticing for many. Running is becoming a sort of new 'sports religion' in China."

Meanwhile, local governments have tapped into the running bug, using races, especially televised ones, to promote tourism in their respective areas.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), 2.8 million people took part in 328 registered long-distance running events across the country last year, with remote areas such as Lhasa, the capital of Tibet autonomous region, increasingly popular as locations.

The association estimated that more than 600 races, attracting about five million runners, will be staged by the end of 2017, almost 20 times the number of events held five years ago.

Those figures still pale in comparison to participation levels in countries such as the United States, however.

According to Running USA's annual report, about 1,100 full marathons were held in the US last year, with an average of 500,000 runners completing the 42.195 kilometers. The respective figures in China were only 125 and 142,000.

"Marathon running has been gaining great momentum recently, but the potential remains largely untapped, given China's huge population and the vast landscape," said CAA vice-president Wang Dawei.

CHEATING SCOURGE

With the number of events skyrocketing, cheating has become a problem, underlined by a number of embarrassing and even deadly incidents recently.

After this year's Beijing Marathon, a photo of three runners with the same ID number went viral, exposing long-existing issues of people fabricating bibs or trading entry spots illegally to run without registration.

The organising committee of the Beijing race launched a probe into the incident and threatened to permanently suspend the perpetrators.

Cheating to enter a race can have serious consequences.

During a half-marathon in Xiamen last December, a runner who was later found to be competing under someone else's name, died of a heart attack after first-aid treatment based on the original participant's information failed to work.

The deceased runner's family sued the race organiser for more than 1.2 million yuan, but a district court overturned the plaintiff's appeal on Sept 21.

Following the Xiamen race, the CAA issued a new regulation that requires all race organizers to tighten scrutiny on registrants and impose lifetime bans on cheats.

"In a lot of early cases, runners didn't trade entries for money but just gave them to others so that the entries were not wasted," said Tan Jie, of Chinese running magazine Front Runner.

"They just didn't realise how big a risk it posed."

Organisers of some elite races have been planning to stamp out identity cheats with face and fingerprint recognition technology.

"The development of the marathon industry should be accessed by quality rather than quantity," said Adam Zhang, founder of the Key-Solution sports marketing and consulting agency.

"Organisers should realize that the runners' all-round experience is much more important than the number of registrants or the reputation of a race."

Providing proper facilities, such as sufficient hydration for example, is just as important as course design and traffic control, Zhang added.

Illustrating Zhang's point well is the case of the 2013 Beijing Marathon, when photographs of competitors urinating on the walls of the Palace Museum (aka the Forbidden City) caused uproar.

The following year organisers added another 160 mobile toilets around the start and finish areas to prevent a repeat of that embarrassment.