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Raffique Shah


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Marathon madness

By Raffique Shah
April 24, 2013

Being an avid athletics fanatic, a distance running devotee, I was all excited over last Monday's Boston Marathon. I missed out monitoring the event via live streaming because of a commitment that I could not forego. But as soon as I returned home, I went online to check on the results, especially the top winners' times.

When I saw the headline "Boston Bombing", I thought that defending champion Wesley Korir, or the fastest man in the field, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, had "bombed" the world record.

Of course, I lost my zeal about winner (Desisa, in a pedestrian 2:10:22) and times and everything else when the horror of what happened at the finish line dawned on me. I could not believe that anyone, not even a mad person, would want to wreck the unique spirit that mass marathons generate. So when I read of deaths and injuries caused by explosive devices, I switched on the television that finally brought live transmission, not of the race, but of the gore.

Before I delve into the Pandora's Box that two Chechen boys unwittingly opened, I need to put Boston and mass marathons in perspective. I shall show why, henceforth, organisers of the biggest athletics events—there are hundreds such races every year, involving tens of thousands of participants and millions of spectators—now face a security nightmare.

Those who, up to last Monday, did not know what a marathon is, may have surmised that participants run, jog and walk 26.2 miles (42.19 kms), a formidable physical challenge. Boston is the oldest continuous marathon, having been staged every year since 1897, the year after the first modern Olympic Games re-ignited interest in this gruelling event. It has had its controversies, the most publicised being the bigoted prohibition of female runners until as recently as 1972.

In one incident in 1967, a race official attempted to wrestle Katherine Switzer (registered as KV Switzer, dressed in a tracksuit) off the course. Katherine's husband punched past the official, and she went on to finish the event, although her name was not recorded as having completed the race. Five years later, the organisers would relent. And it took them another 15 years to offer cash prizes that had become standard in bigger marathons like New York and London.

Uniquely, too, of all the "majors"and for all its history, recordbreaking performances at Boston remain unrecognised. While the course is accurately measured and it is undulating, the overall elevation makes it downhill. So when, in 2011, Kenyans Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop finished one two in the amazing times of two hours, three minutes and two seconds (2:03:02) and 2:03:06 respectively, the marathon world watched in wonderment—but the IAAF was unimpressed. The official record of 2:03:38 belongs to Patrick Makau who won in Berlin that same year.

For marathon fans, there is interest from the moment the "season" starts.

In the opener in Dubai in January, near perfect conditions led to the top five men, led by Desisa (2:04:45), finishing in under two hours and five minutes: what a race! So you look for similar stunners in Tokyo, Paris, Rotterdam last Sunday, and Boston on Monday.

Pre-race hype leads to wild speculation and wilder predictions. London is on today—big money, big names, and boasting rights.

But a mass marathon is more than elite athletes and record times and big purses.

It is about thousands of ordinary runners and fitness enthusiasts challenging themselves over an awesome distance, trying just to complete the race. It's the only sporting event I know that allows ordinary people to participate alongside Olympians and world champions. It caters for men and women, young and old.

It belongs to hundreds (in our case in Trinidad) or thousands of volunteers who assist in ensuring the event is successful.

The marathon enjoys the largest number of live spectators for any sporting event.

It brings together people of all races and classes, if only for a few hours, generating both camaraderie and competition.

It takes a very warped mind to want to damage or destroy this spirit of togetherness that is scarce in a world wracked by "isms and schisms", as Black Stalin sang, or in which religious zealots see targets, not people. I feel sure that the London Marathon will proceed today without incident.

But I can well imagine what mental torture the organisers will endure until the last runners will have completed the event and left for their hotels or homes.

I know. I was chief organiser of the local marathon for 25 years.

In ordinary circumstances, my colleagues and I would work overtime in the days leading to the race, then around the clock on pre-race and race days.

We would ensure that all measures were in place—tonnes of drinking water, traffic control (we never enjoyed a traffic free course here), ambulances, medical personnel, communications and more.

Volunteers would bag the belongings of participants, which they would later retrieve at the finish where we would have a major medical tent, huge amounts of ice and water, shower and changing facilities, and so on.

Not in our wildest imaginations would we consider someone attacking a runner, far less "bombing" the race. You don't plan for something as outrageous as that.

You cannot.

Take London today, where there may be 25,000 bags with runners' possessions: how do you begin to screen them?

How do you secure 26.2 miles of roads and streets along which there are thousands of people at points, millions overall?

I would like to think that the Boston bombing was a freak incident. If it portends a trend, then we are in deep trouble.

Marathoners are intrepid individuals, testing their strength and stamina at extreme levels. They are not easily intimidated.

Equally, though, they will not be willing targets for madmen bent on creating mayhem. Are we witnessing the forced demise of mass marathons?

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