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    China’s Marathon Dilemma: Millions of Runners, Not Enough Races

    Marathon running has surged in popularity in China over the past few years. But the number of races hasn’t kept pace with demand.

    For Zhang Ping, training for next month’s marathon in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao has been the easy part. The real challenge has been securing a place on the starting line.

    The 37-year-old initially entered the draws for four races this year, but failed to get a spot in any of them. Luckily, he eventually managed to get a place in the Qingdao event via a competition on social media, which had a few tickets for the marathon as prizes.

    “It was my only chance of joining,” said Zhang, adding that over 4,000 people had entered the competition.

    This is becoming a common story in China. Marathon running has enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past few years, but the number of races hasn’t kept pace with demand. That’s leading to top events like the Qingdao Marathon becoming massively oversubscribed.

    In 2019, more than 1,800 marathons were held in China, but the number of events fell dramatically during the pandemic. In 2020, only 442 took place nationwide. The end of COVID restrictions sparked a partial recovery, with 580 marathons being held in 2023.

    Yet the number of people wanting to join a marathon keeps rising. Grassroots participation in running is flourishing in China, with industry data indicating that the sport is no longer totally dominated by middle-aged men but is also catching on among women and under-30s.

    The result has been a spike in registrations for Chinese marathons, with competition for places in the top events becoming extremely intense. This year’s marathon in the eastern city of Wuxi received more than 265,000 applications — a record for a Chinese marathon — but only 33,000 people were able to run the race on March 24. In Xiamen, a city on China’s southeastern coastline, only 5% of the people who registered made the cut to run in this year’s marathon in January.

    The lack of races is being caused by a combination of factors, industry experts told Sixth Tone. One is that the sports events industry is still recovering from the pandemic. Many companies lost large chunks of their experienced staff in the previous years, and now lack the capacity to organize lots of large-scale events.

    Increased regulatory oversight of marathons introduced following the 2021 ultramarathon tragedy — when 21 runners died during an event in the northwestern Gansu province — has also led to a number of races being phased out. Meanwhile, local government budget cuts may threaten the future of some events, the experts added.

    These issues are not only affecting the quantity of races, but also the quality of the events. Veteran runners complain that marathons in smaller cities often lack enough staff and medical support. Several recent races have been marred by chaotic scenes: cars on the track, runners unable to cross the finish line, overcrowded waiting areas.

    With running now established as China’s top participation sport, the sports industry is facing increasing calls for more — and better — race events, to transform the country into a true global center for marathons.

    Breaking records

    The growth of China’s marathon industry in recent years has been extraordinary. The first international marathon event ever held in China was the 1981 Beijing Marathon, but this was only open to professional athletes. It would be another 17 years until the general public was allowed to take part in the event.

    After the turn of the century, however, the number of marathons proliferated. By 2014 there were more than 50 races being held nationwide each year. Then the Chinese government streamlined the approval process for commercial sports events, sparking a massive boom in the industry. In 2019, 1,828 marathons took place in China.

    Virus-prevention regulations made races difficult to organize during the pandemic, but running as a sport continued to thrive. A survey by the China Sporting Goods Federation in 2022 found that running was the country’s most popular participation sport. Over 60% of respondents said they had tried running, up from 48% in 2020.

    In Chinese cities, signs of the sport’s growing profile are everywhere. Though the number of full marathons is still down compared with 2019, fun runs and other social running activities are becoming hugely popular — with pictures of joggers in fancy dress regularly going viral on Chinese social media.

    A series of breakthroughs by Chinese athletes have added to the hype. In 2022, He Jie won China’s first ever gold medal in the men’s marathon at the Asian Games, which became a major news story at the time. When He smashed the national record for the full marathon during Sunday’s Wuxi Marathon — finishing in 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 57 seconds — the news quickly began trending on Chinese social media.

    The sport is also developing rapidly at the amateur level. In 2019, only 986 runners qualified for the elite bracket in the Beijing Marathon, which requires finishing an official marathon in under three hours. Last year over 2,400 people did so, according to official data.

    Zhang, a veteran runner, said that he’d noticed a similar trend. The starting zones for elite runners used to be almost empty a few years ago, but they’re often packed these days, he said. “In the past, you didn’t see a lot of people as you went further in the race, but now you do,” he added.

    Middle-aged men like Zhang used to make up the vast majority of runners in China, but nowadays the sport has a far wider appeal. According to Ocean Engine, a data analysis platform, people aged between 24 and 30 are now the second largest demographic group interested in running-related content on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, trailing only those between 31 and 40.

    Liu Xiaolei, founder of Beijing-based running events company Rapid Sports, said that she had seen a clear uptick in the number of under-30s taking part in races. “While they have less work and academic pressure (than older age groups), they also have more pressure to be in good shape,” Liu told Sixth Tone.

    According to Zhang Luping, a sports commentator and author of “The Major Era of Marathons,” a book charting the sport’s rise in China, the growing popularity of running is an inevitable consequence of the country’s economic development. There is a well-known theory in economics circles that road running events take off in a country once its per capita GDP level surpasses $5,000, he said.

    Major setbacks

    Despite this, the quality of some Chinese marathon events still leaves a lot to be desired, and that is even more the case post-pandemic, several sources told Sixth Tone. There has been growing discussion on Chinese social media about the poor management of some races, as a spate of high-profile incidents drew national attention.

    In October, chaotic scenes unfolded at the Qingdao Bay Bridge Marathon as a large number of runners got stuck at the finish line. Many participants later chastised the organizers for providing insufficient supplies and failing to deal with the overcrowding.

    Days later, the winner of the Linyi Marathon was briefly prevented from crossing the finish line because the finishing tape failed to break. Even more bizarrely, the famous athlete Yin Shunjin was blocked during his sprint finish at the Dalian Marathon by a vehicle that inexplicably was driving across the track.

    Ma Yujun, a veteran runner who has taken part in more than 200 marathons and trail runs, said that his biggest concern was the lack of resources available at some events, especially races held in less-developed parts of the country. While races in China’s major cities usually have plenty of staff and emergency equipment like defibrillators available onsite, this isn’t the case everywhere, he said.

    For Liu, the running events organizer, the recent issues at Chinese marathons reflect the ongoing problems inside the sports industry. In China, city marathons are often funded by local governments but organized and operated by sports events companies. And many of these companies are still feeling the effects of the pandemic. Many companies had to lay off the majority of their staff, and often these workers never came back, Liu said. Instead, companies have been hiring large numbers of temporary workers to run events, but she suspects the quality of events will suffer as a result. “They don’t have the same level of expertise or loyalty to the company (as permanent staff members),” Liu said.

    After the spate of controversies in October, the Chinese Athletics Association ordered event operators to improve their management practices and respond more quickly during emergencies. A few months later, it banned companies from organizing two marathons within eight days of each other.

    These are just the latest in a series of regulatory changes targeting running events since the Gansu ultramarathon tragedy in 2021, according to Zhang Luping, the sports journalist. These days, the authorities are more focused on the potential risks associated with hosting a marathon rather than the potential economic benefits it might bring, he said.

    Strict new standards have been introduced regarding safety, medical support, anti-doping measures, event organization, and several other issues. New task forces have been set up to review event proposals and advise companies on how to comply with regulations. Unlike before, every race must now receive official approval before going ahead.

    It’s unclear how the new policies will impact the number of marathons held in the future. Zhang Luping predicts that a number of races in smaller cities could soon disappear — not only due to tightened regulations but also local government budget cuts.

    “While many races have relied on government support for a couple of years, will the government remain enthusiastic and capable of doing that in the future? That’s the question,” said Zhang Luping.

    But most of the sources who spoke with Sixth Tone expressed optimism about the future. While the marathon industry took a hit in the previous years, the sport is growing strongly. And the industry is still developing: The vast majority of Chinese marathons have been around for less than a decade.

    Zhang Luping said that it’s just a matter of time until China emerges as a world-class marathon destination. The quality of the country’s top events has improved dramatically over the past decade, but there are still challenges that need to be worked through.

    “China’s top marathon events will only have truly caught up with the leading global races when they’re able to attract foreign runners in the same way that the six World Marathon Majors attract Chinese participants,” said Zhang Luping, referring to the sport’s highest-profile annual marathons, in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York.

    Zhang Ping, meanwhile, is just glad he can take part in next month’s race in Qingdao. He’s looking forward to the event, but said that the atmosphere at domestic races still leaves a lot to be desired.

    “When I’m abroad, I’ll wear my medal around my neck for several hours after finishing the race, and passersby will give me a thumbs up or ask me for a picture,” he said. “But at home, I always immediately put it in my bag. Hopefully things will be different one day.”

    Contributions: Huang Yang.

    (Header image: Runners at the Wuhan Marathon in Hubei province, March 24, 2024. Zhao Guangliang/VCG)