Hong Kong can put its best foot forward with a revamped marathon

The Hong Kong Marathon returned to our streets with a bang this month and captured the imagination of everyone in the city. After several years of Covid-induced reduced capacity, 74,000 runners could take part in the full marathon, half-marathon and 10km options this year.

The excitement generated by the sight of such large crowds of participants, many in colourful costumes, and throngs of cheering supporters, gives us a chance to make the event even more successful. Our health authorities should join forces with sporting circles to seize the opportunity. Every resident should be encouraged to run a full marathon at least once in their life.

The spin-off benefits of generating such an ambition would be tremendous. It would focus attention on the advantages of regular exercise, even among those not particularly enthusiastic about running itself. They could play football, rugby, basketball or whatever other sport catches their fancy.

But for those who are attracted by the challenge, it is not just the 42.2km to be run on the day itself. There will be months of training in preparation, probably including a more careful diet to spare the knees and ankles – another useful health benefit. Moreover, many would probably stage their preparation over a few years, running 10km first, then stepping up to the longer distances as overall fitness improved.

That was the pattern of my own participation: after being appointed to establish InvestHK in 2000, I decided as part of departmental team-building to form a squad to take part, and encouraged others to enter by signing myself up for the 10km run.

Several colleagues joined me, a few even jumped straight to the half-marathon and one brave soul signed up for the full marathon. Because of all the air travel the new job entailed, I started to run 10km every weekend in an effort to hold deep vein thrombosis at bay.

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Hong Kong Marathon returns to pre-pandemic levels with 74,000 runners

Hong Kong Marathon returns to pre-pandemic levels with 74,000 runners

After running the 10km race three times, and achieving a reasonable time – reasonable, that is, for a middle-aged executive rather than an athlete – I stepped up to the half-marathon, which I also accomplished three times, the last in 2009. But I never went on to attempt a full marathon.

The reason for that was the time limit of five hours (since increased to six). Though my best for the half was a smidgen over 2½ hours, doubling the distance requires more than double the time. A bus follows the runners and once it is apparent an individual is not going to finish within the allotted time limit, he or she must get on the bus. I wanted to push myself but the threatened ignominy of the enforced bus ride was just too powerful a disincentive.

I still remember the planning meeting at Standard Chartered Bank headquarters in Central which reviewed arrangements for the marathon in its present format. Then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa attended, together with officials from the police and transport departments, and bank officials and athletic representatives. I was present because of my appointment as first commissioner for tourism.

The transport people were horrified about the whole idea of prolonged road closures, there was particular reluctance about the proposed Nathan Road start point. I was a strong supporter of the latter because I wanted the positive publicity impact of television cameras pointing towards the assembled runners, with our spectacular harbour in the background, as the starting gun went off.

Marathon is just the start in a long race to bring back normality

Tung supported the Tsim Sha Tsui start, but also endorsed the time limits on road closures. It was a reasonable first step. I think it is now time to revisit two aspects of our marathon: one is the time limit, the other is the route.

Hong Kong is a busy place and prolonged road closures are clearly impractical. But I think we can do much better than our present limits. We should be aiming to encourage participation, not discourage it. Other major metropolises with aspirations for world city status have no qualms about closing the roads for longer periods.

I am sure we can do it, too. For just one Sunday a year, the planners can organise around it and the police can manage the traffic consequences on the ground. Our present chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, may be better placed than Tung was to resist the voices favouring caution, given his police force background.

There are arguments both ways on the route. On the one hand, as pointed out by former Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan in a recent column, the marathon route along the highway – including two bridges – gives the runners themselves spectacular views. But it also means there can be no spectators for most of the race.

The alternative opinion is that holding the event predominantly in urban areas facilitates family members and other supporters, or ordinary members of the public not otherwise involved, to join the fun. The experience of other major cities – London, New York and Tokyo, for example – suggests that the latter argument is the more persuasive.

The involvement of locals stars like actor Chow Yun-fat is good for raising the excitement level, the sight of senior officials from the administration and key business leaders taking part is good for social cohesion. We have created a very good event. Now let us put our best foot forward and turn it into a truly great one.

Who knows how many people might choose to take part in a revised event, or who they might be? No promises, but I still have my old running shoes.

Mike Rowse is an independent commentator

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