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The Marathon Boom in China Just a Beginning

Shi Yanxiu, one of the leading names of Chinese runners
Shenzhen International Marathon 2013 Starts

Shenzhen International Marathon 2013 Starts

If it weren’t for the anti-Japanese protests on September 18 in 2012, Shenzhen would have hosted its first marathon a year ago. As in many other cities, the sports bosses in China’s southern boomtown saw a need to bring in an international long-distance running event. So after two years of preparation, the Shenzhen International Marathon was delivered on December 8, attracting over 5,000 runners.

For the event, the southern metropolis got a crucial advantage over the others. “The weather we have here is perfect for long-distance running,” says Sun Qianfang, vice director of Shenzhen International Marathon’s publicity department to China Sports Review. “Compared with cities in the North, runners don’t have to worry about the problem of ‘haze’ in Shenzhen. It’s good for the health of our citizens.”

The concern of weather pollution has been on the minds of many Chinese mayors, but there seems to have no quick remedy. Out of desperation, Shanghai’s environmental authority came up with a cheating plan to beat the numbers: lowering the city’s pollution standard.

Better planned and sponsored, Shanghai held their own marathon on December 1. But its polluted air was among top complains. “I run my first marathon today,” wrote a runner on Weibo. “The air was so polluted that my nose just turned black after the run. It was like I just got out of a coal mine.”

Pollution or not, the number of marathons has seen a steady increase in recent years. There are, in total, 38 marathon events in China in 2013, 35 out of which started after the year of 2000. The reasons behind this rise vary from city to city.

“For us it’s not so much about the name [of the city] as Shenzhen is well-known already,” said Sun. “The priority is create a platform for local runners.”

But for Danzhou, one of the six county-level city in Hainan, China’s southernmost province, name and headlines are everything for their tourism growth. Danzhou hosted its first marathon at the end of 2011 and, at the time, we had a chance to talk with Zheng Gang, a vice mayor of the city for his sports vision.

Previously worked as a manager of Hainan’s two main tourist attractions, Zheng saw an opportunity in hosting sports events for Danzhou. “We’ll have half marathon and 10 km races next year,” said Zheng. “We also need to add some flavor to the competition. We can have some beautiful bikinis girls run 5 km here. I think it’s rare, and very important for Hainan as an International Tourism Island.

And Zheng’s bikini vision came true earlier this year, but maybe he’s a little more ahead of his time, as many runners quit after knowing that they must wear bikinis to compete.

“Some say there’re too many marathons now, but in fact there’s a tremendous gap compared with the west in terms of quality and quantity,” said Sun.

Sun’s view is shared by Shi Yanxiu, chief editor at Erun360, a Beijing-based startup that caters to the needs of rising Chinese running enthusiasts.

Ms. Shi herself is a runner sponsored by Mizuno. At 29, She now has 29 marathons and over 10 ultramarathons under her belt. Shi cultivated a fondness for running in junior high but said she wasn’t really inspired by anyone for it.


Shi Yanxiu, one of the leading names of Chinese runners

Shi Yanxiu, one of the leading names of Chinese runners

“It’s just that I felt bored in a PE class and decided to run,” said Shi, who found running an escape from her hectic school life.

Shi studied environmental engineering at college. She got an offer from Sinopec after receiving her graduate degree from Nanjing University. At Sinopec, one of the largest SOEs in China that ranked 4th on Fortune’s Global 500, Shi worked as an environmental engineer, dealing with projects day in and day out in the company’s branch in Nanjing.

“It’s a very steady job,” said Shi. “But I think I just don’t belong to those environment and chemical stuff.”

Last June, Shi met Huang Xinjing, the founder of Erun360, at Lanzhou International Marathon. And a month later, she quit Sinopec and joined Huang and his colleagues.

“Compared with the hike in number of runners, which has been tremendous especially for people aged 40 to 50, there’s still a lacking in competitions in China,”said Shi.

And Erun360 is filling the gaps. Aside from online discussion forums and providing running tips, the company has been organizing running events themselves and help promoting brands within the community.

Shi finds contentment in her new job. She trains 10 km a day and competes more regularly as before. To Shi, there are two types of runners in China, the professional runners that have been recruited up through the ranks in the country’s sports hierarchy and amateur runners like herself.

“For the professionals, it’s all about getting scores and achieving results. After winning a medal in the National Games or landing a job within the sports system, they simply stop running and hate it,” Shi explained. “For us amateurs, running is a life-long passion.”

“Sometimes I wonder why we can’t inspire people to run during their school years. That’s what I find a bit strange about our sports education.”

Links and sources:

  • South China Morning Post: Anti-Japan protests turn violent in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Qingdao
  • Caijing: Marathon, a living business cards for Chinese cities?
  • Bloomberg World View:  If You Can’t Beat the Shanghai Smog, Change the System


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