Marathon offers a challenge to develop community spirit

Bernard Chan compares Hong Kong's run to Japan's and finds it wanting

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

In 1997, the first Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon had 1,000 runners on a route to Shenzhen to mark the handover. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. This year's, in February, attracted 72,000 participants, with over 14,000 doing the full marathon.

That included top runners from Asia and the rest of the world, including Kenyan and Ethiopian champions. It is our biggest outdoor sporting event and an important vehicle for raising funds for charity.

Not everyone is impressed, however. A friend of mine who takes marathons seriously went to the Tokyo one this year (on the same day as Hong Kong's). In many ways, he says, the standards are similar, but something about the Japanese race stands out.

Both events, he says, are well organised. Finding affordable hotel space is a challenge in both cities. In terms of logistics and arrangements for runners - refreshments, transport and so on - both are professional and efficient. Hong Kong has some interesting scenery, but also a lot of gloomy tunnels, which are not fun to run in, and more climbs due to hills and bridges.

But the really noticeable difference, my friend says, is that the Hong Kong race is so obviously segregated from the local community, while in Tokyo the marathon and the local people come together in a carnival atmosphere. Tokyo's motto this year, "The Day We Unite", was not an empty slogan.

There seem to be several reasons for this. One is that the Japanese public is simply more interested in marathons. Some of the world's top runners are Japanese, and long-distance sports seem to be part of the country's sporting culture. Perhaps Japanese people are also more likely to enjoy a communal activity like watching a marathon than people here.

Most of all, however, it is the timing and routing of the race.

Having taken part in long-distance endurance events myself, I can see the bright side of starting the Hong Kong event so early in the day before it gets warm or humid. Runners here set off from between 5.30am and 7am.

However, the main reason for the timing seems to be to allow the authorities to open the roads up to normal traffic by around 1pm - which is when the race is at its height in Tokyo. By the time most people in Hong Kong have got up on a Sunday, the top runners have reached the finishing line.

Most of all, the route in Hong Kong seems designed to avoid the public. For much of the time, full marathon runners are going over the Stonecutters and Tsing Ma bridges and the associated viaducts and tunnels, as well as through the Western cross-harbour tunnel. Only at the start in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the end through Central and Wan Chai to Victoria Park, do they pass through urban areas where crowds can watch and cheer. Because of the early start, the only spectators runners see are at the end in Causeway Bay.

In Tokyo, the race is held during normal hours and through downtown city streets. The crowds line much more of the route and cheer and pass water and even soup to the runners. Other top marathons like New York, Boston, London and Berlin also manage to involve the wider community.

The reason for this is simple. If our transport, police and other agencies arranged for more of the 42-kilometre route to pass through our dense urban areas, it would require major temporary traffic arrangements. Cars, buses, vans and even pedestrians would face major diversions for a day.

The marathon could have been a huge event for the community. But the authorities were so afraid of upsetting particular interests and hearing loud complaints that they segregated the event from the people. Who can blame them? It is a reflection of a problem that hinders far bigger decisions and changes in our society.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council