Marathon mess was 'abnormal': Organiser

Organiser pledges full review of timing glitch that hit nearly 3,800 runners last Sunday

''Ultimately, the buck stops with us,'' said Spectrum Worldwide managing director Chris Robb. --ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
''Ultimately, the buck stops with us,'' said Spectrum Worldwide managing director Chris Robb. --ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Flag off at Orchard Road for the 42.195km full marathon during the Standard Chartered Marathon 2013 on 1 December. It was a mess-up unlike anything anyone has seen in the history of the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore (SCMS). -- ST FILE PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

It was a mess-up unlike anything anyone has seen in the history of the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore (SCMS).

Top runners wrongly denied podium finishes only to be reinstated two days later. Then the discovery that a timing glitch caused 3,782 runners to be either unfairly disqualified or given inaccurate timings.

After a week in which hundreds of runners took to social media to slam last Sunday's run and the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) called for "lessons to be learnt", race organisers Spectrum Worldwide have put their hands up for the fiasco.

"As organisers, ultimately, the buck stops with us," Spectrum managing director Chris Robb told The Sunday Times. "Our policy, always, is to be honest and if we've done something wrong, we put our hands up. We don't try to hide behind anything."

The problem in the timing system last Sunday affected almost 4,000 participants - or 7 per cent of the 54,000-strong field - in the annual race, Singapore's biggest running event.

Some high-profile errors included wrongly disqualifying runners Alex Ong and Derek Li, who finished second and sixth respectively in the Singapore men's category, before reinstating them days later.

By Mr Robb's own admission, a timing-related snag of this size is abnormal.

"I've been in the industry for 25 years, and I've never experienced anything like this in terms of a timing glitch of that magnitude," he said.

The margin of error is usually restricted to "a few hundred".

The 50-year-old Zimbabwe-born Australian is a veteran in the business of running sports events, having also held a supervisory role at the Sydney Olympics marathon and organised events such as the JPMorgan Corporate Challenge here.

And with Spectrum also behind the 12,000-participant OCBC Cycle Singapore event, questions have been asked if the firm is up to the task of organising two of Singapore's marquee mass events.

Although Spectrum has only two large-scale events here - it also oversees several cycling events in the region - staging the Singapore marathon is big business.

In July, the firm was appointed event organiser for this year's SCMS by the SSC. In return for staging the run, the SSC, the event owner, will disburse grants totalling $12 million to hold four editions of the race. The run costs an estimated $8 million to hold each year.

But organisers get to generate income in the form of registration fees - at least $3.5 million was raised this year, based on the participants across the categories.

Mr Robb, who has based his company of 35 full-time staff here since 2002 and also has an office in Kuala Lumpur, feels the events of the past week have been a good learning experience.

He admits that in hindsight, there should have been a better screening system alerting race officials to the timing discrepancies before incorrect results were released.

A thorough review of the timing glitch has begun, but he conceded that arriving at a conclusive verdict of what happened "could take a couple of months".

Until then, he feels it is premature to speculate what the root cause was.

What his team has isolated, at least, is where the timing system malfunctioned, at two particular checkpoints.

A timing mat along Nicoll Highway had failed to pick up on about 2,500 runners who passed it, while the timings for some half-marathon runners also did not register at the start point at Sentosa.

The same supplier contracted for the past two years had been tasked to provide the ChronoTrack electronic timing system, a technology also used by prestigious runs such as the New York City Marathon.

Mr Robb also pointed out that while this was the first time Spectrum took on all aspects of the marathon, the company had in fact been in charge of the SCMS' operations for the past five years.

And while there will be improvements made next year, no major changes like downsizing the event will be introduced.

Spectrum's response to Sunday's fiasco was welcomed by Mr Ong, although he remained disappointed that his first podium finish in six attempts was marred.

Said the 26-year-old trainee teacher: "I'm sure that as race organisers, Spectrum strove to create the very best experience for runners. It's just really unfortunate that this happened.

"They were quick to recognise their mistake and have been quite open about it."

With a potential move to the new Sports Hub on the cards next year, Mr Robb is optimistic of holding an even better marathon deserving of the coveted International Association of Athletics Federations Gold Label status.

He said: "What we have now is an opportunity to re-evaluate the event next year on all aspects, with a longer lead time. There will be some changes to the event next year and we hope those will all be positive."

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