2018-03-09 10:40:22

At the 2018 Shanghai International Half Marathon, at least eight Chinese runners won’t return home empty-handed.

This year, organizers have announced a special award scheme for the half marathon aimed at encouraging domestic athletes to continue participating in the annual event. The eight fastest Chinese runners will now receive cash awards ranging from 500 to 10,000 yuan ($80 to $1,600), the organizers announced Wednesday.

“[The award] is to provide motivation to Chinese athletes to go beyond themselves and challenge the competition at a high level,” the organizers said in an email to Sixth Tone on Thursday.

In Shanghai, while local participation has soared, foreign runners have largely dominated the winners’ podium: African athletes have overshadowed local runners in the half marathon’s men’s and women’s categories since 2016. And all of the title holders for the city’s full marathons in the past seven years have hailed from just three countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa.

In 2017, an estimated 5 million runners participated in 1,100 marathons organized in different cities across the country — an 83 percent increase from the previous year, according to Yu Hongchen, secretary-general of Chinese Athletic Association.

The uptick in runners, say media reports, is partly associated with the attractive cash prizes. At just over 21 kilometers long, Shanghai’s half-marathon offers prizes ranging from $500 to $10,000 for the eight fastest runners overall, while the top award for the full marathon is $45,000.

But Martin Nexo, founder of Shanghai-based running community RunnersHai, said it shouldn’t be all about the money. Instead, Nexo said, the primary focus should be on the experience itself — on incorporating cultural sights and engaging with the local community.

“To use prizes as an incentive for people to join races may be a little narrow-minded and a little unsporting,” Nexo told Sixth Tone.

Rising income levels and an increased interest in leisure activities have led more Chinese to run casually and even join in competitions. The special prizes offered at Shanghai’s half marathon could be seen as an attempt to mobilize amateur runners to participate, said Nexo, adding that they may also be part of a top-down strategy to target homegrown talent that might one day compete at international-level competitions, such as the Olympics.

The growing number of marathons has provided professional race-chasers with plenty of opportunities to back potential winners. These Chinese agents often sponsor the athletes to fly in and participate in exchange for a cut of any cash prize they might win.

But some athletes run into trouble when promises of a share of the winnings don’t materialize. Last year, Kenyan runner Mwea Kithusi turned to police in Chengdu in southwestern China after his agent only handed over 2,000 yuan of the 21,900 yuan Kithusi had won in eight marathons run over a two-month period.

This year’s Shanghai half-marathon is scheduled for April 22, and some 15,000 runners are expected to participate in the event. The city also hosts the Shanghai International Marathon, which is slated for November.

Additional reporting: Kenrick Davis; editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Runners cross the starting line at the Shanghai International Marathon, Dec. 1, 2013. VCG)