Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Runners want return to good old days

By Gao Zhuyuan (China Daily) Updated: 2013-10-26 07:54

It had never occurred to me that I might run a marathon in Beijing until I watched Sunday's Beijing Marathon, which was great, despite criticism of its not so runner-friendly toilet facilities. However, like many seasoned Beijing Marathon runners who are familiar with the city, I was worried about the notoriously bad air quality.

Runners want return to good old days

Runners wearing fancy costumes start from Tian'anmen Square during the Beijing International Marathon on Sunday morning. The event attracted 30,000 runners. Tadese Tola of Ethiopia broke the event record set 27 years ago to win the men's race, finishing with 2:07:16. Photo Provided to China Daily

Last year's marathon, postponed to November, was burned into our memories not only because of the cold, but also because of the severe air pollution. This year, concerns began to grow as the capital was shrouded in smog with the event fast approaching. October was deemed the best time to hold a marathon in the city as autumn is usually the most pleasant time of the year. Worse, two days before the event, Grammy winner Patti Austin was forced to cancel her concert in Beijing after she suffered an asthma attack and respiratory infection when smog once again choked the city.

So can we really accuse any marathon participant who talked about running in a mask or those who pulled out of the race for overreacting? Fortunately, on the day of the race the air quality turned out fine with few runners feeling the need to wear a mask. For this, the strong wind the night before definitely deserves a medal.

Having set a speed record of 13 hours for registration this year, the 33-year-old event is testimony to the fact that Beijing is more than just a political town, and the capital is not the only one aspiring to host such races. A total of 33 marathons were held nationwide last year and 22 in 2011. However, holding an annual event is one thing, but using it to promote a physical fitness campaign in the long run is quite another.

Data from Nike+ Running, a mobile application that allows users to record pace, distance and run routes using the device's GPS and to map out the routes on Google Maps, show that China's major cities record much fewer popular run routes than other international cities. Only a handful of running spots are displayed on Beijing's map, while in cities such as New York and Tokyo, popular routes for runs crisscross the city.

This is not surprising though, not because many Chinese people are less enthusiastic about exercising, but because who wants an outdoor workout on a smoggy day.

Data from a mobile application, of course, cannot reveal the whole picture, but it does point to the harsh reality facing runners in many Chinese cities, and the lack of suitable and accessible routes for running and the toxic air prevent the sport from gaining traction and becoming everyday exercise, especially for the country's rapidly aging population.

Even this year's Beijing Marathon owes much of its success to the weather. What if there was no strong wind to clear the air? It is bad enough picturing scenes of tens of thousands of marathoners becoming human vacuum cleaners as many micro-bloggers joked ahead of the event.

Former marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia opted out of the marathon in the Beijing 2008 Olympics because of fears about the city's pollution, but he came to Beijing later for the 10,000m and said he regretted pulling out as the city embraced bright blue skies during the Games. The latest marathon might have jogged many Beijingers' memory of the good old days five years ago when the sky was blue, but it should also act as a sharp reminder of the coming winter days when air quality apps are likely to warn against outdoor exercise due to the hazardous levels of pollution.

The good sailor does not pray for wind, he learns to sail. Sadly this is not true for running fans in Beijing and many other cities as a strong wind is just what they pray for.

The author is a reporter with China Daily. gaozhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 10/26/2013 page5)

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