THE RETURN OF RUNNING EVENTS: IT COULD BE A LONG WAIT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Towards the end of 2019, the domestic racing calendar was one of plenty. Mumbai based-race organizers You Too Can Run, has a database of annual running events. That alone showed approximately 1300 events in India. There are more. With lockdown caused by COVID-19, runners in hibernation and races cancelled or postponed, the optimistic time frame to recovery currently spoken of, is six months. Realistically, it could take longer for normalcy in the racing environment. “ It may be a long haul,’’ Sunil Shetty, senior runner who is also associated with NEB Sports, said. Additionally, at least one industry official said that like most sectors, the business around running may need to become lean to cope with the troubled times. It is a measure of direct impact. There is indirect impact as well.

Events have costs. A lot of these costs are met by sponsors. Sponsorships are typically part of a company’s marketing and image building budget. COVID-19 has arrived with warning of recession to follow. During recession, marketing and advertising expenses are among the first outgoes to be slashed by companies. Will every race organizer find sponsors? The situation is compounded by only informed guessing possible right now on how runners may re-emerge from lockdown. How much would COVID-19 have affected their appetite for mass participation events? Ashok Nath, Bengaluru based-runner, coach and mentor, felt that runners would welcome the return of road races, including new safety guidelines to adhere to. But their response would be proportionate to how safe the overall environment appears to be. Post lockdown, should any city suffer relapse to outbreak of infection that would be a concern for potential participants. Point is – if an organizer assumes the risk of meeting the costs involved to host a race and then ends up getting the cold shoulder from runners, it can be hurting.

Same goes for holding events in truncated format. For instance, post lockdown and still in the shadow of COVID-19, it would theoretically seem easier for authorities to approve an event with limited participation. Or say yes to a full marathon because that discipline typically sees limited participation (and is therefore better handled in scenario of cautious recovery) unlike the more popular shorter distances like the half marathon and less. However, it is the shorter distances that earn money for event organizers. Given costs to recover, truncated event is a bit like permission for airlines to fly with fewer seats on offer per aircraft. And just as that may translate to higher ticket cost, a major running event with sub-optimal participation may see altered fees unless the whole model sustains by some other means.

As COVID-19 spread worldwide, major international marathons were cancelled or rescheduled. Races that rescheduled came up with dates for fall 2020. Something similar is expected in the domestic calendar. Season specific events like monsoon marathons, may get cancelled if their windows are not deemed safe. From the rest, some may attempt dates in winter. Under normal circumstances, the fall season is a busy period for running in India. When rescheduled races land up in the same period, it could end up a tussle between the big events and the small ones, with the former likely favored by runners. Result – we may be in for a churn or what industry calls it: consolidation. “ Even ahead of pandemic, several races on the domestic circuit fell in what could be called the C category. In the months ahead, they will be the most vulnerable,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani of You Too Can Run, said. Enquiries with industry showed that most race organizers in India lack insurance cover for their event. “ Some of the big players take it. I would imagine that only about 10 per cent of races are insured,’’ an official in the know said. Not everyone agreed with the specter of consolidation. One race organizer said that in their quest to avoid crowding, runners may wish for a variety of options.

Then, there is the issue of event architecture in times scarred by COVID-19. A major development in the wake of pandemic has been social distancing. Marathons involve a large number of people. Most marathons have a couple of points where physical proximity happens. All races start with a holding area. While holding areas can be big, permitting people to spread out, the countdown to race’s commencement usually sees bunching of runners. The bunching happens because runners seek advantageous positions. At the end of every race, past the finish line, you are typically greeted by a couple of choke points. Runners get bunched while collecting their medals; they also get bunched when collecting their refreshments. Another concern is hydration; in fact, how aid stations operate. With COVID-19 protocols emphasizing hygiene, they will come under the scanner. Recyclable plastic water bottles may find fresh lease of life. It is also possible that runners may be encouraged to bring their own water (water bottles / hydration packs) in the early phase of events revival. Clearly, responsibility to keep participants safe will be heavy on race organizers. “ It will be a new environment at least for the next one year,’’ Chewang Motup, owner of Rimo Expeditions, organizers of the Ladakh Marathon, said.

Flashback / pack of elite runners from the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The larger question all this inspires is – when will conditions be suitable for the old confidence to return? At the time of writing, some states had just extended lockdown to the end of April. It is too premature to predict anything. “ There are matters of much greater priority for authorities to address before their attention can be sought for events like marathons,’’ Ashok Nath said. Two people we spoke to mentioned July end as earliest likely period when an assessment of the future may be possible. But even then, it isn’t enough that runners and race organizers feel hopeful. A lot rests on when authorities are ready to issue the statutory permissions every marathon requires. “ That is the important question,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani said. Much before running events, the world will have to reestablish its comfort with schools, colleges, offices, shopping malls, theaters etc. Further, as Sunil Shetty pointed out, major marathons are possible thanks to the support from other sectors like railways, civil aviation, long distance buses and hotels. They make it possible for many to participate. If these sectors are not fully operational it will leave corresponding impact on the participation at events. In a conversation featured in the post Lockdown & Me on this blog, Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, amateur runner and CEO of sports nutrition company, Fast & Up, had highlighted the cautious herd behavior that may characterize how events around running, revive. Meanwhile, TCS World 10K, the first major road race rescheduled in the Indian calendar following COVID-19, has been moved to September 2020. Roughly six months from now, that appeared the optimistic time frame for gradual revival in most people’s mind. By then more indicators would also be available for a clutch of major international marathons have been rescheduled to the September-October-November period.

Finally, there is a point, very valuable in an oblique sense. During crisis, we withdraw to what we actually are. If what we are includes the active lifestyle, the chances of its return are brighter for even authorities would imagine supportively. In today’s India, despite the virtues of active lifestyle, it is clearly minority. On March 27, 2020, in his open letter to the athletics community, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, was spot on when he said, “ we should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’ Events are the business end of running. Before planting the seed to grow a tree, nurture the soil.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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