Fit for purpose?

Race deaths lead to questions about China’s marathons

Fit for purpose?

Race for survival: two died at the Guangzhou Marathon

Urban marathons, if staged well, offer great publicity for their hosts. They can showcase municipal infrastructure, demonstrate a city’s ability to hold large public events and send a positive message on health and fitness to the population at large.

Hence the current enthusiasm of a number of Chinese cities to host marathon events.

But a series of accidents at Chinese marathons in recent months has some asking if the country is really ready for long distance running.

Some of the mishaps are plain organisational.

For example, last month 2,000 runners in Macau were forced to run 45 kilometres rather than the standard 42km (i.e. 26 miles) after a marshalling error meant the leaders took a wrong turn early on in the race. Due to the number of runners the organisers judged it would have been dangerous to try to stop them, so added in a small loop to get them back on course. Event officials blamed front runners for not familiarising themselves with the course before. But the decision to bring the start time forward to 5am when it was still dark also played a factor, they admitted.

That ranks as an embarrassing cock-up, but things were altogether more serious in Guangzhou, which staged its first marathon this year.

During the race, two young men collapsed and later died in hospital.

Beijing’s marathon on October 25 was also controversial because of the air quality. The US embassy, which monitors pollution levels in Beijing, classified the thick, grey air as “hazardous” on the morning of the run. But official media wrote that the pollution of the day before had “cleared” and 30,000 people still turned out for the run. Many of them wore masks to filter out the worst of the toxins.

Some 20 Chinese cities now hold marathons, trying to attract big name runners with cash prizes. Yet, many of the leading names won’t compete because of the pollution. In 2008 Haile Gebrselassie, then the gold medal holder, even pulled out of the Beijing Olympic marathon, citing the pollution.

In light of recent events, the Chinese media has started to focus more on the dangers of running – especially for the more unfit entrants – in marathon events. Running is not a particularly popular sport in China and many schools are less inclined to include it in their sport curricula – mainly because they say students aren’t as fit as they used to be. Indeed, other deaths have been reported following running events organised by schools and educational institutes.

That leads to something of a paradox. “Marathons don’t exist because people love running, it’s because cities want to improve their image. These are the same cities that are cancelling sports in schools,” warned the Worker’s Daily in an editorial.

Its conclusion: “We don’t need so many marathons.”

But the state news agency Xinhua took a different tack.

“Right now, because of the sudden deaths, marathons have been demonised in domestic public opinion… but we should be encouraging people to run not telling them to avoid it because it is dangerous. Marathons are a boost to the national health.”

The debate about whether Chinese cities are safe places for running marathons looks set to continue…

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