How mass participation sports events ‘exploded’ in Hong Kong – and the challenges city faces to stay at the forefront

Trail running in particular has seen a huge boom and there are many other thriving events in the city – but the rest of Asia is fast catching up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 4:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 6:34pm

In these cooler months, there’s at least one, often several, mass participation events in Hong Kong every weekend; no wonder Dan Parr says “mass participation – everything from 2km fun runs to ultra-endurance runs – has absolutely exploded in the city.”

He should know: the managing director of sports marketing firm Fast Track Asia is also one of the city’s leading ultra-runners, whose team was second in last November’s 100km Trailwalker.

Parr was speaking at a recent Business of Sports Network event where the panel – Parr, Action Asia editor Steve White, Andes Leung of non-profit Run Our City and Abhinav Gupta of Active Network, an event management tech company – discussed how Hong Kong came to the forefront of mass participation in Asia and the challenges it faces to stay there.

“People are looking for experience over material possessions, it’s not about what you own, it’s what you do,” said Parr. “The growth of the industry has been massive and Hong Kong has built a reputation as a destination and venue for these events, which I think is terrific for the region.”

Gupta pointed to rising incomes, lifestyle choices and social media as factors in the boom. “People who love to travel can combine events with exotic destinations, or if they’re passionate about causes they do events to raise money,” he said. “And people like to look good doing them – everything’s about Facebook.”

Trail running in particular has boomed in Hong Kong, but umpteen other events of varying difficulty and novelty have popped up. One, the Spartan Race, was so popular and undoubtedly lucrative that it is being held again in April, six months after its first staging. Others, such as the 50km ‘ultramarathon’ that saw entrants run up and down a 1km strip of road in Admiralty, invited derision.

“It’s not just about having a badge that said ‘I ran 100km,’ it’s about interesting environments, great outdoors, exciting destinations,” said White.

Parr said some often-maligned events like the Cyclothon, Cross-Harbour Swim and Marathon, which are organised by their sports’ governing bodies, should be handed to professional event management companies; given that he is MD of such a company, perhaps that was unsurprising.

“The Singapore Marathon is run by Ironman, their core business is running mass participation events around the world and they are very, very good at it,” he said. “It’s streets ahead of Hong Kong and is going to become one of the marathon majors. For me, that is the fundamental issue with some of these events.”

The panel was united on the difficulty in convincing government of the merits of such events in terms of community fitness, tourism, promotional benefits, etc – as well as the frustration caused by red tape.

Leung, whose foundation holds events to get youngsters active, spoke of his first meetings with “20 officials from 18 different departments” and said he got the impression civil servants just wanted him to go away rather than try to help get kids fit.

“There needs to be a little more joined-up thinking among different stakeholders including the government,” said White. “Very often for race organisers in this town there’s an awful lot of interfacing with different layers of government bureaucracy that doesn’t always go well ... the marathon is moving in the right direction, but surely it should be one of the most iconic marathons in the world – look at this incredible city ... we’re selling ourselves short.”

Could some sort of joint campaign group among the myriad organisers be set up to help educate government bureaucrats of the merits of such events, I wondered?

“I definitely think there’s scope for that in trail running now, there’s so many events that take place on the trails of Hong Kong.” said Parr. “In the last HK100 there were runners from 35 countries, they’re taking back a conception of Hong Kong that very few people see ... [but] you get one questionable operator, the AFCD has an overreaction and closes trails.”

“Maybe a forum like this, if all of the major event organisers got together, could help,” added White. “I think they rarely talk ... certainly it would help get a bit more leverage if they went together in a concerted fashion.”

An official from the Home Affairs Bureau was present for the discussion and hopefully took away a positive impression – it was impossible to know as they vanished immediately, skipping the networking session with stakeholders that followed.