Association of International Marathons and Distance Races

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Marathon movers

11 January 2021, 8am

Longest-serving race directors of AIMS events (Part II)

As the popularity of running increased during the 1980s every major city, and a lot of smaller ones, wanted to put on a marathon they could call their own.

A Marathon became recognised as a badge of civic pride and for its appeal to a valuable part of the tourism market. Events were set up specifically to attract runners from foreign countries – who would most likely spend more and have a greater impact on the local economy than national or local participants would.

Specialist tour companies in several European countries were already recruiting large groups of runners to take part in the New York City Marathon and were always on the lookout to add more destinations to their programmes. Some of them went a step further and set up ‘boutique’ races in selected destinations for trips they organised themselves. An early example of such an initiative was the Malta Challenge Marathon organised by a British tour operator, Barry Whitmore (see race profile).

Foreign runners also helped to project an international image for the host city. This was important at a time when many European countries were experiencing radical geopolitical changes. After the establishment of the Belgrade Marathon in 1988 and a high-profile visit from New York Marathon race founder Fred Lebow in 1989, race director Dejan Nikolic proclaimed that “If the Belgrade Marathon ceases to be held as an international event, even for a single year, it would be a disaster” (see race profile).

As the years passed distance running reached to ever more distant places. Often these offered attractive locations to which runners could now travel with a purpose, but in some places running grew as an indigenous movement. There had long been a distance running culture in Asia, but largely confined to Korea and Japan. In 2003 a seed from the London Marathon was transplanted to Mumbai by Vivek and Anil Singh. They staged the inaugural Mumbai Marathon in January 2004 and then nurtured the race as a flag-bearer for a running movement that swept the sub-continent in the following decade (see race profile).

Now, with pre-covid numbers standing at 470 AIMS member races spread throughout 125 countries, distance running has become a truly global sport through the efforts of race organisers, from Boston to Bhutan, from Venice to Vladivostok – and all points in between.

Persevering through adversity
Dejan Nikolic, Belgrade Marathon, est. 1988

Belgrade is an ancient city located at the intersection of the Danube and Sava rivers which divide it into Old Belgrade (most hilly) and New Belgrade (completely flat). The Belgrade marathon course was designed by Fred Lebow in 1989. and slightly modified in 2017. It starts and finishes in the centre of Old Belgrade but most of the race is run on the flat in New Belgrade.

Throughout the 1990s just about the only good news to come out of war-torn Yugoslavia was the Belgrade Marathon. Against all the odds – UN sanctions, war in the region, closure of the airport, strict visa controls, raging inflation and general mayhem – the organisers kept the Belgrade Marathon on the road

For 30 years the Belgrade Marathon has been one of Serbia’s largest sporting, social and humanitarian assets and officially became the event of special importance to the City of Belgrade and the biggest and most important sporting event in Serbia. An AIMS member from 1990 it was a pioneering event in the region, working closely with the City`s authorities.

Belgrade has survived more crises than most marathons. Troubled times generated troubled relationships and the Marathon had to deal with 16 Mayors of Belgrade and many other politicians, facing disputes with some of them.

In March 1999, after the start of NATO bombing operations against Serbia, a message was sent to NATO Headquarters in Brussels saying that the Belgrade Marathon was going ahead the next day on the streets of Belgrade with 15.000 people, including children, taking part. The Marathon stood up against war: that Sunday Belgrade was not bombed and more than 20.000 runners, facing a hard rain, completed the race under the banner “Stop the War, Run the World”. Thirteen Russian cities – from Murmansk to Vladivostok – organised Belgrade Marathons of their own in support

The Marathon gave birth to other races in Belgrade from elite to popular mixed competition – fusing sport, history and culture. These included the hugely popular Belgrade Race Through History, the Belgrade Zoo Children’s Marathon and a dedicated Women’s race. There have been 1.2 million people who have finished in all of the Belgrade Marathon races over the last 32 years.

Since 1995 the Fred Lebow Trophy has been presented to the winners as a token of the friendship that Belgrade Marathon developed with the New York race founder and of thanks for his assistance. Fred helped to establish the Belgrade Marathon and send a message to the World that the marathon has no borders. In those turbulent times the Belgrade Marathon was the only international event of any kind to happen in Belgrade.

Just as the Marathon has come through adversity it aims to support individuals who face problems. In 2018 the Belgrade Marathon received the AIMS Social Award in recognition of the “Heroes of the Belgrade Marathon” programme helping runners living with disabilities to finish the Belgrade Marathon. In a similar way the “Mama Fit” campaign promotes education for women about safe physical activity during and after pregnancy.

Realising tourist potential
Barry Whitmore, Malta Challenge Marathon, est.1990

As an established UK running sports tour operator I saw the opportunity to develop the “Challenge” as an event that would sell well in the UK. Coupled with the recession in Britain in 1990, the two combined to provide an opening.

I had been taking clients to Malta to run the Malta Marathon since 1977. I knew the island well, Malta is English-speaking and I had invested in property there. I decided on a 3-day event to make it easier by breaking a Marathon down into three parts. I thought this would attract runners who could not train for the full distance. The concept was a world first and it worked.

Setting up such an event 2000km away was a challenge in itself. I met with the Maltese Federation: they loved the idea and were very helpful. I also met with the Ministry of Sport and Tourism who were supportive from the start – and still are now. During 1990 I sought out potential sponsors and support was forthcoming. For the Challenge stages I chose three of the most scenic parts of Malta:

I met my wife to be in 1992 when she was working for me as a guide. It was a huge turning point in my life. Isabelle was a great asset in dealing with local councils and other government offices and gave me the confidence to continue.

We faced some opposition from local Maltese races that saw my “Challenge” as competition to them rather than a boost to Maltese tourism and a Blue Riband quality event for the island. Thirty years on the “Challenge” remains a much-respected event with a worldwide reputation.

Organising an event like the “Challenge” often presents problems outside your control. On 7 September 2005 the Superintendent of Malta Traffic Police told me that if I staged the “Challenge” on its usual date I would have no police presence because of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I was forced to put the “Challenge” back one week and because of this we lost 65% of the overseas clients who had booked their flights. It happened all over again in 2015 but this time, forewarned, I brought the race date back by a week at the very beginning of the year

Road works and reconstruction have been a major problem particularly on the final stage along the coast road to Valletta. I was faced with this for eight years but each year a solution was found and the “Challenge” never stopped.

I also changed the distances and locations of each stage so each stage is a standard distance. Stage 3 is now a half marathon on a beautiful circular course taking in some breath-taking sights in the north east of the Island.

But the biggest challenge has been this year’s Covid crisis. Tourism is at a standstill.
The 30th edition of the “Challenge” is postponed this year and will take place on 26, 27 & 28 November 2021. But we instead staged the 1st Malta Challenge “1/2” Marathon on 29 November 2020 which is leg 3 of the “Challenge”.

Taking distance running to new frontiers
Vivek Singh, Mumbai Marathon, est. 2004

“In establishing the Mumbai Marathon the overriding goal for my brother and myself was to bring people together across all socio-economic strata, onto a common platform. We believe that sport offers a panacea for society’s ills.

“We experienced an epiphany at the 2003 London Marathon*. Energy, zeal and the event’s inclusive nature moved us, firmed our resolve and drove our decision to bring a marathon to our home, Mumbai. We sowed the Marathon seed in 2004 and it has blossomed.

“There were trials and tribulations along the way. In a country dominated by spectator sports like cricket and football, growing a participatory sport like running seemed to be an enormous task.

The challenge was to get the city and state civic authorities to work in sync. Setting up the infrastructure required, managing thousands of registrations and securing 42km of road closure was all previously unheard of.

With the support of our partners, the vision of our sponsors and the ever-present sustenance of the Government and civic authorities we overcame, and realised a “Possible Dream”.

If some wondered what was so special about the Marathon the deadly Mumbai terror attacks on 29 November 2008 showed them. Following just seven weeks later the Mumbai Marathon had the city standing in unison for the peace and safety of its people. Registrations for the event were over-subscribed as participants showed the “can do, will do” spirit of Mumbai. It is this sense of inspiration and belief that has brought people back year after year to this iconic event.

The event’s journey over the past sixteen years has been transformational: it evoked a fitness revolution, spawned over 1700 road races in India and created an active running community of over 2 million runners. National performance standards improved and brought representation at the Olympics. The event created an entire ecosystem around the sport estimated at 400 million USD annually. Since inception the Tata Mumbai Marathon has raised in excess of USD 55 million charitable funds as the single largest fund-raising platform in the country.

The glorious UNESCO Heritage Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus serves as a picture-perfect backdrop for the start and finish of the race. Mumbai is a melting pot of cultures, vigour and dynamism. This uniqueness echoes in the spirit of the event displayed both by the participants and the citizens who are all smiles along the entire course – cheering the runners with motivational music, messages or offering biscuits and water to ensure the runners achieve their goal.

Adding its considerable weight to the movement is our title sponsor Tata Sons and Tata Consultancy Services, who are instrumental in propelling the sporting fabric of India. Our event partners, each a leader in their own industry, offer customised experiences to runners and bring a definite synergy to each race.

The team at Procam put in herculean efforts year after year. Consistently innovating, we are always striving to give our participants an experience that they can treasure.

[* Note – much the same as the event’s founder, Chris Brasher, had experienced a generation earlier at the 1979 New York City Marathon]

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