Let's make more of the marathon
While many of us are struggling to get back to reality and trying to shed the excess pounds gained over the holidays, there are others in full active flow getting ready for next Sunday's Hong Kong Marathon.
To be exact, 70,000 runners will now be getting into the right frame of body and mind in preparation for the biggest participatory event in Hong Kong. Once again the boundaries have been pushed further, with 5,000 more runners taking part. Every year a new record number is established, with organisers increasing the quotas for the marathon, half-marathon and 10km events.
This begs the question of what the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association does with the millions of dollars it gets from the public, who have to pay to take part. The registration fee for an individual is HK$300 - US$40 for overseas entries; a quick calculation reveals the organisers will be laughing all the way to the bank, in this case Standard Chartered, with HK$21 million in their pockets.
Ever since Standard Chartered became title sponsor in 1997, the event has attracted thousands upon thousands of runners. Translate that into dollar terms and it means the 'triple A' gets a healthy revenue annually. What does it do with the money?
HKAAA boss Kwan Kee laughs when asked about the bounty. 'What money?' he replies. Nearly 90 per cent, he insists, goes to organising the race, with the association only left with the balance.
It is not easy to put on a marathon. Closing the roads takes a lot of negotiations with the various government departments. Then once that has been approved, there are the costs of hiring manpower to run the show, the hundreds of race marshals and officials who line the road, the people at the water stations etc. Then you have to pay contractors for hiring the toilets, hire 12,000 cones for the roads and so on. 'There are so many hidden costs thrown in,' says Kwan.
If you also take into account that every runner gets a t-shirt and a medal - which according to Kwan accounts for almost half the fee - then it seems the association barely manages to turn a profit. It is a shame, for the marathon could be a much-needed cash cow for it, and one which could spur the growth of athletics in this town.
To do this, the association has to bite the bullet and raise the registration fees to HK$500. Half of the extra HK$200 should go to charity, while the other half goes to the association. The race last year raised HK$3.5 million for charity, mainly through the title sponsor, which has long supported the Seeing is Believing fund, while money is also donated for cancer and the Paralympics.
It is time the public also played a role in giving. The London Marathon, which is well-known as a charity marathon, raises nearly GBP30 million just from its participants. Why can Hong Kong not follow suit? Hong Kong is well known for giving generously in times of need. We have donated money for tsunami and earthquake victims. If the running enthusiast knows his money is going to a good cause, I'm sure he will willingly participate.
Equally an extra HK$100 for the association's coffers would be most welcome. This would add up to HK$7 million which could be used for the development of the sport.
The 'triple A' has just got to look at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union as an example. A sporting body with an embarrassment of riches, the HKRFU is forthright in spelling out how the money from the Hong Kong Sevens is spent. It has revealed it has more than HK$200 million in reserves, but at the same time has also spent millions in improving facilities for its growing number of players.
Rugby has also come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. The national team is ranked second in Asia at both 15s and sevens. The union doesn't scrimp and save, instead making sure representative teams for both men and women, as well as at junior level, get as much exposure as possible, both at home and overseas.
The money that the HKRFU earns from the Sevens is thus put to good use. Yes, some of it has been salted away for a rainy day, but a lot is spent on the here and now. And the results are there for everyone to see, with the ambitious sport making good ground in recent years. Can athletics boast the same?
Kwan believes in taking it one step at a time - make the marathon a high-profile international event. One way is to attract some of the biggest names in the world of marathon running. The prize money for next Sunday has been increased by US$70,000 to US$220,000. This is a good first step but more needs to be done if we are to make this event one of the world's best.
A runner-friendly course - through the streets of Hong Kong and not through soulless highways and bridges - and more commitment from the public is the way ahead.