In China, marathon races have set off a nationwide craze (COURTESY PHOTO)
Listen closely. Can you hear that? It's the sound of millions of feet pounding the roads in China, and it's getting louder with every step. Marathon fever is sweeping the country.
Looking back to the early stages of marathons in China, Huang Weikang, former editor-in-chief of Track and Field magazine, said that 10 years ago, despite the bustle on the street, most citizens were mere onlookers during the Beijing Marathon.
"At that time, a marathon was simply an ornamental event in China, like a ballet or an opera performance. The public's participation and passion were not high. But now, it seems the running craze is gradually reaching fever pitch," Huang said.
In China, large-scale international marathons in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, are attracting high demand for entry tickets the minute registration is announced. Hundreds of thousands of applicants compete not only for the top prize, but to win a place in the event. Running enthusiasts across the country go out of their way and spend large sums of money—even on airfares—in order to participate and compete in these and other road races.
Statistics from the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA) showed that in 2017, a total of 1,100 marathon events with a size of 800 competitors or more took place across 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in China. Nearly 5 million runners registered as participants in the races, an increase of close to 2.2 million compared with 2016.
Government support, social participation and strong marketing by the sports industry have gradually led to the rapid development of the marathon industry, which is currently valued at 70 billion yuan ($10.77 billion). To date, the industry has created an estimated 720,000 jobs nationwide, according to the CAA official website.
The start of the 2017 Xiamen International Marathon (XINHUA)
More than fitness
In recent years, China's ever-growing fascination with marathons has been triggered by its economic development and health-conscious middle class. According to the 2016 China Sports Consumption Ecology Report released by the 21st Century Economic Research Institute and e-commerce platform JD.com, a large proportion of marathon runners are white-collar workers, civil servants and businesspeople who are keen on leading a healthy lifestyle.
"No other sport requires such simple entry to participate. All you need is a good pair of running shoes and you are ready to hit the road, regardless of age or gender," said Lu Jin, a marathon enthusiast. As a 45-year-old surgeon in Beijing, Lu started with half-marathons three years ago for a simple purpose: maintaining fitness. Now, he is an old hand at the sport and has participated in many international marathons.
"Running a marathon gives you a stronger heart and lungs; more defined legs, glute and stomach muscles; better posture; possible weight loss and increased strength and endurance," Lu told Beijing Review. However, the benefits of running a marathon are far more than physical. "Many people find that as they train, it's a catalyst for reducing or eliminating unhealthy practices such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake and overeating junk food. You might add a few years to your life, but you'll most certainly add more life to your years," he said.
Wu You, an IT engineer, became a marathon addict upon realizing the amount of relaxation it offered after a hard day. "Running long distances increases resilience and improves mental clarity," he said. "It can be a place where you find peace and solitude, have time to think and are able to work through negative emotions. When you are upset and running, you will find that the world is really simple, just under your feet."
In China, marathon races have set off a nationwide craze (COURTESY PHOTO)
A lifestyle choice
For many runners, marathons are a way of life.
"As we get older, the places and opportunities to meet new people decrease. I find that participating in marathons is a simple way to make friends," said Wu, who made many friends in the Xstop Running Community, a running club with 48,000 members established by Xtep, one of the leading distributors of sports merchandise in China.
"The sense of belonging and the mutual encouragement that exists within the running community are very attractive to many people. We easily befriend one another, since we have the same goal: to keep running and never stop," Wu told Beijing Review. Besides, a marathon can be a great way to explore new places. For a runner who also loves traveling, marathons are a solid choice. "Competing in an international marathon is a chance to experience a city or a country you've never visited before," said Meng Xiangkun, an experienced runner from north China's Tianjin Municipality, who often runs in London, New York and Melbourne.
There's a unique perspective that people get running through the streets of a city, distinct ancient buildings or amazing natural settings, he explained, things that somehow just can't be seen by whizzing by in a car. In addition, during a race, streets are often closed off so you don't have to battle traffic.
Marathons market cities
In an effort to increase popularity, many cities in China have been scrambling to host marathon races, since they are a boost to the local catering and tourism industries. According to Zhang Xin, Deputy Director of the Chongqing Municipal Bureau of Sports, most of the marathons in China are held under the auspices of local governments.
"Since China has been in the process of speeding up its urbanization in recent years, municipal authorities are eager to accommodate similar sports events to further display and promote their cities," said Zhang.
Due to its large participation and nationwide media coverage, marathons are considered by local governments an important part of marketing their cities. Thus, many cities single out unique routes across local scenic spots and historical attractions, not only to boost people's fitness, but also to promote local tourism.
For example, on April 21, the Fanwan Lake Wetland International Marathon was held in Qianjiang in central China's Hubei Province. A televised broadcast of the event presented the city's beautiful and natural scenery to the world. After hosting the event, the city received approximately 130,000 tourists during the May Day holiday, a growth of 7.8 percent year on year. It generated a total tourism output value of 30 million yuan ($4.62 million).
Though China is in the grips of a sporting boom, the marathon is still the new sport on the block, thus it still faces many challenges in terms of race operations and marketing. For example, cheating to enter a race has become a problem in some marathon competitions. In the 2017 Beijing International Marathon, three runners used the same ID number, exposing long-existing issues of contestants fabricating bib numbers or trading entry spots illegally to run without registering.
In order to curb such problems, the CAA imposed new rules in October 2017, which include banning runners from races in which they were caught cheating, along with total disqualification from all CAA authorized races for a second offense. In addition to taking steps to eliminate cheating in the sport, the CAA has also issued guidelines regarding race management, runners' training, medical treatment and emergency aid to ensure runners' safety and well-being.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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