- The views below does not reflect those of the events or their organisers that I have been associated with or likely to be involved in future.
- The views conveyed below are in no way sacrosanct and is amenable for suggestions from others.
Among the various disruptions due to COVID-19, includes Running events which carry a significant risk of transmission. The prevailing guidelines issued for various other activities are certainly difficult, if not impossible, to be followed in running events. While it is still unclear on when they will be allowed to be resumed, one can be sure that at some point of time, it has to be resumed. As RK Narayan writes in one of his short stories, “for even diseases must end someday.”
Over the years, the significance of a running event has extended beyond the few recreational runners who started organising them for fun, to event organisers, sponsors, host cities, television and media, and importantly, charitable institutions, for whom marathons presents an opportunity to raise funds. In 2019 London Marathon, those running for charity raised £66.4 million for various charitable institutions. As the events got bigger, they also bring in a few unpleasant traits – crass commercialisation, prohibitively exorbitant entry fee, winner-takes-it-all approach bringing in the negative side of competitive sports, disassociation with community leading to constant friction with non-participants, and damage to environment. In addition to the above criticisms, organising a running event now also carry the risk of being categorised as a ‘Super spreader’ of COVID-19, should any of the participant get infected. In an attempt to find a way out through the current pandemic, it could be useful to have an overall rethink on the way running events are organised and the purpose they serve could be more useful.
Running and COVID
To start with, Running events should not be organised in conflicts with the current guidelines issued by Government or medical authorities relating to COVID. Debates ranging from the existence of virus to the validity of steps undertaken exist in all spheres of society. We don’t need a running events to be used as a platform for testing the different hypothesis proposed. Whether the virus is for real or not (given the lack of trust among some sections of the society), the symptoms, including death, are for real. In simple terms, there is no need for a running event like the Adria Tour organised by few tennis players. Any adverse incident not only jeopardise that event but will soon extend to all running events. It could take the form of unwarranted intervention by government authorities or poorly drafted guidelines that are not possible to be adhered to.
“Virtual” events aren’t a solution
The recent trend of virtual events are never going to be a meaningful alternative. With technological advancements, it could evolve into a new category of event in itself; but the disregard for human connect would never make them a substitute for existing events. Established brands like New York Marathon and others are using the route to either cash-in their popularity or keep their community intact to retain continuity. A similar opportunity does not exist for all organisers. The reliance on technology is huge and many times, it will make those selling t-shirts and medals masquerade as event organisers. Incidents of malpractices and technical errors can also frustrate runners. Further, there is every possibility of alienating runners who are not technologically savvy, which is certainly not a requirement for running. On the positive side, it does help to build the community and keep them together during these times. Such efforts can only fructify if it presents hope to be a physical event soon.
Connect with Runners… again!
Once events grow in stature, many organisers start distancing themselves from the runners. The trend of ever increasing entry fee despite the increase in sponsorships is a case in point. Unlike entry fees, sponsorship amounts are not likely to be paid upfront. While sponsorship amounts are contractual and paid on the fulfilment of obligations, most events retain entry fee even if the event is cancelled. This is not to say that everything about sponsorship is bad for the event and should be avoided at all. Events need to look for committed sponsors who are in it for a long duration. It certainly starts with the stake holders of the sponsoring organisation being active runners.
Winners don’t take it all
Not every event needs to have a single winner. The craze to see a handful of winners among the multitude of runners is a burden on the organisers. The energies devoted to the care of these few elite runners can be deployed on caring many other runners. The compulsion of deciding the winner makes mass start mandatory which in current situation needs to be avoided. Another recent trend of awarding prizes according to different age groups can be done away with. There are embarrassing situations like no prize winners in a certain age group or a fourth placed finisher in a higher age group is faster than the top-3 from a lower age group. It promotes mediocrity and ‘event shopping’ by desperate prize winners.
Involve the community
The benefits from running events must extend beyond the apparent stakeholders – runners, organisers, sponsors – to the overall community. While there are tangible benefits through tourism, emphasis must be made on the intangible benefits that the community derives by hosting a running event. When asked about what she feels proud about the Comrades marathon, Cheryl Winn, who won in 1982, replied,
“It showed the country what it could and should be.”
Running events present a wonderful spectacle of harmonious and peaceful congregation of diverse set of people. Running events can certainly learn from the various temple festivals in India that involves all communities.
Small is Beautiful
In times like these, small-scale running events involving a few hundred runners from the local community organised in their local area can present a viable alternative. The Park Run, started in The United Kingdom, is an ideal model for many running clubs to follow. It is heartening to note that they are likely to be resumed by end-October 2020 with adequate precautions. It will also help monitor the spread of the infection as most runners are likely to be living within the locality.
Major events are becoming unsustainable from the environment perspective, despite their efforts in recycling. Apart from use of single-use plastic, many events provide inferior quality t-shirts, goodies, and needless extravaganze that is hardly connected to running. This is certainly a time to rethink on many such practices and eliminate some of them.
- Work with existing regulations and not challenge them.
- Don’t rely on virtual events as a long term solution
- Focus more on runners
- Prioritise participants over winners
- Involve the community as a whole
- Downsize if required
- Promote sustainability
We always have a choice to wait for change or make/be the change. Most runners that I am aware have been change-makers in various spheres of life. While I am certain that it will not be late before running events are back, I wish it returns back with a difference. It should certainly present the society a way forward in conduct of public events. In 2009, Mumbai Marathon was the major event for Mumbai after the infamous terrorist attacks in November 2008. It presented a chance for people to come together again and move forward. Running events present an opportunity to help the society move from COVID.