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Ruling Marathon
Is the surge of African runners good for China's running sport?
By Li Nan | Web Exclusive

Thomas Esito Ekiru, a Kenyan racer,takes the first place in the 2016 Nanchang International Marathon in east China's Jiangxi Province on November 20 (JXNTV.CN)

African runners once again dominated, sweeping seven of the eight golds on offer in all four marathons held in east China's Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces on November 20.

Thomas Esito Ekiru, a Kenyan racer and the 2016 Nanchang International Marathon champion, finished the course in two hours, 16 minutes and 15 seconds.

In fact, Ekiru frequently participates in long-distance races in China. And he is not alone. In recent years, African faces have often been spotted on marathon courses throughout China. They have become quite the medal-seizing force.

Cheruiyot Wilfred Kiptum and Sang Nicholas Kiprotich, two Kenyan students studing at Ningbo University of east China's Zhejiang Province, have participated in nearly 100 races across more than 80 Chinese cities.

"The Beijing Marathon sometimes invited a dozen of African runners; sometimes even up to twenty or thirty," said Wang Jian, general manager of China Olympic Road Race Sports Management Co. Ltd., the operator for this year's race .

And they claimed most of the medals at China's long-distance running events. Take China's top three international marathons for example, held in Beijing, Xiamen and Shanghai. All the top race winners are from African countries, including many runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Raison d'etre

How did this phenomenon come about?

One possible explanation is the huge demand for elite racers in China's long-distance running, which is inadequately met. According to data from the Chinese Athlete Association (CAA), this year witnesses a total of 306 marathons registered by the end of November. To shatter previous records and outperform other events, organizers tend to invite Africans to their competitions.

"In 2013, by introducing African runners, the Beijing Marathon finally waved goodbye to the long-held record set by a Japanese racer 27 years ago, " said Tao Shaoming, a former coach of China's National Marathon Team and a prestigious sports agent for African runners.

"Between 2013 and 2015, my runners swept 70 percent of the medals at major marathons in China," claimed Tao. In 2012, he started an agency named "Tao Camp", which has trained and entered more than 300 professional African runners into races around the world, and especially in China.

Wang Xiaogang, a renowned sport columnist, talked about the current state of China's marathons in an interview with Shanghai-based news website thepaper.cn."I have to say that the phenomenon is reasonable and understandable. One party is willing to pay for African runners, and another party rejoices in competing for the prize, while the third party bridges them."

Another reason for the surge of African runners in China is that competing in long-distance races is a good way for them to make a fortune.

To attract elite overseas runners, many events like the Beijing and Xiamen marathons offer rewards of up to $40,000 to the winner. As a result, the best professional athlete can earn up to $1 million per year in China, and excellent runners usually earn $200,000 annually, according to Changsha-based Titan Sports, one of China's most popular sport newspapers.

Even African amateurs can profit from the market. When he is in good shape, Kiptum can earn up to $2,962 per month. "I have built a house for my family in my hometown with the bonus," Kiptum told Zhangzhou-based CZTV.COM.

But Kiptum admitted that with more and more fellow African runners flooding China's courses, it's getting more difficult for him to reap the prize.

Vying for more media coverage partly accounts for the surge. "Some nascent events would attract foreign participants—not only Africans—to improve results and to internationalize its runners, thereby getting more of the spotlight," said Wang.

And Wang said that African runners will keep ruling China's marathon courses in the coming five to ten years.

Concerns arise

Yet some noted that inviting African runners costs a lot, which may go against the healthy development of Chinese running. To attract top foreign athletes, event organizers have to pay for runners' tickets, accommodation and even appearance fees. This has the corollary result of diminishing the budget for other aspects of the sport.

"It's unnecessary for local competitions to invite [overseas participants].Organizers should spend more on providing better service," Chen Guoqiang, an associate professor with Shanhai Physical Education College, told thepaper.cn.

Actually, in June the CAA rolled out three regulations to cap running agents, the amount of prize money and invitations to foreign runners. "The CAA doesn't encourage all domestic events to include excellent foreign athletes," Wang Dawei, Deputy Chief of the Athletic Management Center of China's General Administration of Sports ,told People.cn in early November.

"Rather than staging a show, marathon organizers should encourage more running lovers to participate," he said.

Wang Xiaogang agreed that the African force has done little to rope the masses into joining in. To alter the situation, he suggests either lowering the prize or categorizing participants into two groups—foreign and domestic runners—and awarding them separately.

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar 

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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