Oct 16, 2005

Beijing marathon (or: cough, gasp, gasp...wheeze) - 北京马拉松的肺气肿

Introduction

Ranking as one of the foremost running competitions in the world, the Beijing marathon was held this morning. The sponsor was ANA, the Japanese national airline company. The same rebellious Chinese youths that were hurling bottles and stones at Japanese businesses and government offices a few months ago now shamelessly wore the logo of the main Japanese airline across their chests.

Along with the Boston and New York marathons, the Beijing marathon is a highlight in the world of competitive running. Well, it has to be ranked above the Ashton-Mesa Falls, Idaho Marathon, at least. A running race in China can be likened to holding an open water swimming competition in Boston Harbor or New York's East River. In the former case you get to inhale the carcinogens, in the latter, the pollution is absorbed through the skin.

With the morning sun already shrouded in a fart-brown cloud of industrial pollution, professionals and weekend-warriors gathered in Tiananmen Square. Runners were lined up by the distance they were to run: first were the world class marathoners (mostly Kenyans), then amateur marathoners, half-marathoners, 10K'ers, and 4.2K'ers. [Side note: if I'm running a 10K, which is essentially a long sprint, shouldn't I start before the half-marathoners, who are pacing themselves, so that I don't have to bob-and-weave through them?]

一个有中国特色的马拉松 (A marathon with "Chinese characteristics")

The Chinese police and military are no slouches when it comes to crowd control. This is related to the marathon because the starting area for the race was in eastern side of the square, but the police and military patrols on-hand for crowd control would let no one, registered runners included, cross the road to get into the square.

There were two crosswalks into the square. At the first crosswalk, the army patrol turned back a crowd of runners and pointed them to the second crosswalk, one hundred yards away. At the second crosswalk they were told the same thing, which is when the situation heated up. Runners started to shout at the police and military. A couple runners took advantage of the situation, hopped the security barrier and scuttled across the street, 18-year-old army private in chase. "Any minute now, a contingent of army tanks is going to appear to run us down like dogs", I thought. Group unity became the logic of the crowd, at which point around fifty runners swarmed across the street. It was too much for the security forces to deal with. They gave up chasing down the “splittist runners” and it looked like most people got across.

At the start of the race, the 200,000 or so amateur runners thronged out of the square, rounding left past the portrait of Mao's grinning mug, heading westward on one of the major throughways of Beijing, Chang An Avenue. The Soviet-designed Beijing streets are well-suited for mass running races such as this. It was relatively easy to navigate around the stragglers. An expat runner next to me stepped into a Beijing-sized pothole, skinning his knee and shin, but recovered at once with some help from friends lest he be trampled by the thousands of runners behind him. In an effort to add yet more "Chinese characteristics" to the race, the city of Beijing arranged for the five-lanes of traffic opposite the runners to be filled with idling automobiles, to better facilitate the inhalation of noxious fumes. I was quite concerned that a race held on a mid-October morning would lack the air pollution that is so common in China, but I was not disappointed.

Heavy-handed police and pollution weren't the only highlight of the race. Beijing really outdid itself again by demonstrating its characteristic chaos and disorganization. Due to poor race planning, officials allowed the lead runner, Benson Cherono, to lose track of the race course. According to ESPN:

Cherono built a solid lead about 6 miles from the end. Judges later discovered he followed a broadcast van directly into the National Olympic Sports Center, where the race was scheduled to end, instead of following the regular route. Because he was close to the vehicle, the referees "made mistakes" and did not see him, chief referee Wen Fusheng told the Xinhua News Agency said.

Due to his lead, Cherono was still awarded first place, but the organizing committee blanked out his finish time. If only the 2008 Beijing Olympics can be as well-organized as the marathon, the world is in store for some real entertainment.

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