BEIJING, June 22 (Xinhua) -- At the starting line of the Dalian International Marathon, China's northeastern Liaoning province, runners were tuning up for the races in a fiesta atmosphere of dances and songs. Among some 30,000 runners, Tao Ni was full of vigor and couldn't wait to start her first half marathon on May 13, 2017.
"After I knew our group of runners will participate in this year's Dalian Marathon, I felt both excited and nervous. I knew nothing about marathon when I first joined in the group last year, but I got to know it bit by bit and love it day by day. And I've trained a long time for it. Now my dream comes true," said Tao, looking ahead at a sea of runners dressed in sporting shirts and shorts.
FEVER ACROSS CHINA
Tao is a new comer to marathon, and so is China. Six years ago, the most populous country only hosted 22 marathons nationwide, yet the number of marathons and road running races registered at the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA) reached 328 last year, a 150% increase compared to that of 2015.
The 328 events included 125 marathons, 128 half marathons and 75 other running races, sprawling across 133 cities in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, attracting a total of 2.8 million participants, namely 1.3 million more than that of 2015.
According to CAA, more than 400 marathons will be staged across the country this year. Comparing to the 22 marathons in 2011, the number has been increased by 18 times.
In March, 2017, the Chongqing International Marathon even attracted some 120,000 applicants for its 31,000 slots, and the eventual runners were chosen by a lottery system. On the same day, many other marathons also took place in cities across the country, such as Shanghai, Chengdu and Qingyuan.
"We held our first Chongqing Marathon in 2011 when we had to call on the masses for their participation. But in 2017, only one fourth applicants can be granted. The past six years have witnessed the rapid development of marathon in China," said Li Wei, director of the Chongqing Nan'an District Sports Bureau.
ROOTS OF MARATHON HEAT
Despite of its long popularity around the world, marathon had its fever across China only during the recent years, but in a slapping pace, especially among the affluent Chinese people as China has been boasting of its rapid economic development over the decades.
According to the organizers of the Chongqing International Marathon, the main force of the marathon runners are the middle class, namely the white-collar workers, civil servants and businessmen.
Running is considered as the most accessible, cheapest and easiest sport for ordinary people. And its toughest race is marathon, which is a huge challenge to every participant both physically and mentally. The middle class in China is rapidly expanding and they are more than ever keen on leading a healthy lifestyle.
These factors combined to cater to the need of self recognition for those middle class people.
And marathon even becomes a new sense of fashion in China as many a runners are eager to share their running pictures on social media, which help promote marathon to a great extent.
IMAGES OF CONCERNED PARTIES
The marathon fever in China is also closely related to the local governments, according to Zhang Xin, deputy director of Chong Qing Sports Bureau, as most of them are held under the auspices of local governments, even as far as Lanzhou in the northwest Gansu province.
"As China is speeding up its urbanization in recent years, the municipal authorities are happy to have a sports event to further display and promote their cities," said Zhang.
Due to its large participation and nationwide media coverage, marathon has been considered by the local governments as an important carrier to enhance the images and influence of their cities.
Thus, many cities single out their unique routes across scenic spots and historical attractions, not only to boost the fitness for the people but also to promote their local tourism.
And the bulging popularity of marathon also gripped the attention of enterprises to promote their own brands and products.
The Chongqing Marathon was once on the brink of being abandoned due to lack of sponsors in 2012, nowadays a large number of well-known enterprises rushed to sponsor the event since 2014, as sportswear and equipment manufacturing enterprises have also developed their varieties of high-tech shoes, equipment and software, according to Li Wei.
Besides its sports features, marathon also becomes a promising industry. Amateur runners buy basic sportswear of clothes, shoes, socks and pants, and those experienced ones are more tech-savvy and keen on high-end devices and professional equipment, such as sports watch and heart rate monitor. Their demands provide a huge market with great potential.
"We have our research about foreign road running races, and we believe the fever of marathon in China is sooner or later," said Wu Lixin, senior brand director of Xtep, one of the biggest sportswear enterprises in China.
"We are dedicated to develop products strongly related to running. We are to build up an ecological circle for runners in product research and services, marathon sponsorship, and running social contacts, according to the demand of users," Wu added.
Apart from spending on sportswear and equipment, runners also travel to different places for other marathons, generating expenditure of transportation, catering and accommodation.
TOUGH ISSUES TO TACKLE
However, the marathon fever in China has not yet reached its peak and is still far from enough in terms of quantity and quality, comparing to the United States, Japan and other developed marathon countries and regions.
In 2015, the United States had 1,100 full marathons where 510,000 completed the course. Japan also has a total of 570,000 finishers of full marathon in 2015.
In catching up with the best in the world, local organizers and all concerned parties in China are also requested for instant measures to deal with some tough issues, which have become the hot topics among runners, fans, and even organizers themselves.
For instance, some organizers provide few toilets and drinking water along the course, and some small cities exploit public resources in transportation, security and medicines, and host large scale marathons by hindering the normal life of local residents.
And to the worst, some runners even didn't have systematical training in advance, increasing the threat of injuries and even death.
Two Chinese runners died at the 2016 Xiamen International Half Marathon in eastern China's Fujian province. One of them even took the competition number of someone else.
REGULATIONS IN NEED
The CAA released afterwards new rules to deal with cheating in marathon races - banning runners from the races they cheated in, and any second offence means a life time ban from all CAA authorized races.
In addition, the marathon culture has not yet rooted in China. Lots of runners go to the streets only to brag about their so-called running fashion.
And to most cities in China, marathon is still a fresh sport in its popularity, thus a lot of problems occurred in terms of race operation and marketing.
To deal with such issues, the CAA has in recent years put forward guidelines in terms of race management, runners training, medical treatment and emergency aid.
Experts suggest that marathon should be organized with a crystal clear orientation instead of too many functions.
And a pyramid structure of marathon - from the full marathon, half marathon, mini marathon, to the middle and short distance running, and other fun running - will not only encourage more people to rush to the streets to cherish their healthy lifestyle, but also promote the images of the Chinese cities by improving efficiency in using public resources.