Why ditching Hong Kong Marathon was never a consideration for Standard Chartered
Bank’s Asian chief wants to make the event the ‘biggest in Asia, if not the world’
Standard Chartered’s Asia chief Benjamin Hung Pi-cheng insists he “never, ever” considered dropping sponsorship of the Hong Kong Marathon, even though the group as a whole last year lost money for the first time since the race was launched in 1997.
The bank’s London shares slumped in February 2016 after it reported a loss of US$1.5 billion for 2015, its first since 1989.
Hung, regional CEO for greater China and north Asia, warned then that “painful action” would be needed, but says the marathon was never a target for cutbacks – and declared he wants to make it “the best in Asia, if not the world”.
“It never crossed my mind, never, ever,” said Hung at an interview at his office in Central this week ahead of Sunday’s 21st edition of what has grown from humble beginnings to become Hong Kong’s biggest mass-participation sporting event.
Standard Chartered HK, the direct sponsor, still made a profit in 2015, and the group as a whole has returned to profitability in its latest interim results.
“Banks go through cycles, a bank is nothing but an amplified reflection of the underlying economy,” he added. “The economy does well, the bank will do more than the economic positives. Economic adjustment goes down, we’ll do worse.
“Fine, there will be bad years, there’ll be good parts of the cycle. We’ve been here 150 years, so we’ve seen all these things.”
Hung said the marathon – his brainchild – has become far too important to the community.
“It cuts through so many walks of life,” he added. “Personally I feel and I do believe we have a sense of responsibility in doing what we can to promote what is positive for the community for Hong Kong.
“Being a big bank here there is a certain sense of shouldering the responsibility ... that’s why I never like sponsorship just from a standpoint of writing a cheque, that is not in my DNA, you have to shape it, strategise your vision, work with whoever is supporting you to make it bigger.
“We don’t need to feed more of that commercial DNA, Hong Kong already knows how to make money, so its doing what you can, finding areas in which you can contribute [such as sport and culture].”
Entries for this year’s race were accepted on a ballot system for the first time rather than a first-come, first-served basis and demand again far outweighed supply.
Some 74,000 will line up at the start – in the pre-dawn hours because of the government’s reluctance to close roads during the day.
That is despite the fact that comparable races in other “world cities” such as New York and London seem to manage okay – and have routes that show off their greatest landmarks to global TV audiences, rather than highways and tunnels like Hong Kong.
Hong Kong could easily accomodate 100,000-plus runners with more support from authorities, but Hung believes progress is being made. For every half-hour of road closure, an extra 5-6,000 people could run, he said.
“I certainly see the shift [in attitude],” he said, pointing out that Hong Kong East is the area with most participation, even though it is also the most inconvenienced. “I think if there is greater demand and support, whether it’s from runners or media or district councillors, whatever, then the more willing the government is to embrace it more.
“Everything is a trade-off. For every facilitation of a group of people, in this case runners, you also will be inconveniencing part of the community. The question is whether the positives outweigh the inconvenience.
“Because it is becoming such a positive and participatory type of event, the tolerance level over the years as I’ve witnessed has grown, which is wonderful.
“I would like to see Hong Kong population become more tolerant and supportive of positive events like this.
“I think the government generally speaking has been very supportive and increasingly is even more supportive.”
Hung says he and organisers have a long-term vision to make the event even bigger in terms of participation, and to widen its demographic still further – a 2km family run event will be held this year for the first time with that in mind. He pointed that this year there was greater demand for the half-marathon than the 10km for the first time, a suggestion that the city’s leisure runners are becoming more keen to go longer distances.
Getting the race into the streets and showing off the city skyline is another major goal, though again would require major support from the government.
“Understandably Hong Kong has limitations, but if London can do it why can’t Hong Kong?” Hung added.
“You have to take a step back – is this a good thing for Hong Kong? Absolutely. Therefore how do you leverage it, ask for forbearance from part of the community for the inconvenience to make this even bigger, not just a local but international event.
“We have a record number of international runners this years and over the last few years we went from [IAAF] Bronze to Silver to Gold medal [status], a function of how many world-class runners are being attracted.
“The more positive [reputation] the event gets ... the more willing the community is in terms of the tolerance level and that can be a positive [virtuous circle].
“It can be a negative vicious circle – people complain and you do less and less – I just want to make it a positive circle in terms of quality and quantity and having a vision of making this the biggest marathon in Asia, if not the world.”