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Security diminishes charm of Olympic marathon races

Watching the race live as men and women pound the roads in one of the most grueling competitions helps appreciate the extent to which humans are willing to push themselves.

olympics 2016 Updated: Aug 27, 2016 15:26 IST
N Ananthanarayanan
Rio Olympics 2016

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the men's marathon in Rio. (AP)

For the sheer delight it usually provides to the fans at the venue and viewers on television, there can’t be a more interesting event in the Olympics than the marathon.

Watching the race live as men and women pound the roads in one of the most grueling competitions helps appreciate the extent to which humans are willing to push themselves.

The two hours or so that it takes for the lead runners to come home also provides millions of viewers around the globe a conducted tour of the city which is staging the sports spectacle once every four years.

Tourist draw

Watching a marathon, and if it is backed by interesting commentary and good camerawork (in the case of TV), can even inspire those wanting to travel to distant cities abroad or planning to take up running as a leisurely pursuit.

But that excitement is steadily vanishing from these road races.

Blame it on the increasing security concerns around the world. Organisers of big events such as the Rio Games are not willing to take any chance. That has meant the aesthetics that make some of the leading marathons in the world special, may not be a priority for the organisers anymore.

Securing a marathon route is no mean achievement in this day of terror concerns. But watching the last few kilometers of the Rio race was a big letdown.

The closing ceremony later that day was held at the Maracana stadium, and the marathon didn’t start or finish at the Olympic stadium as per tradition.

The main draw of famous races such as the London marathon is the chance for runners to take in the beauty of the city as they run through the lovely landmarks that define it. (Getty)

Empty stretch

Although the Sambodromo, parade venue of the famous Rio carnival, was the starting and finishing point for the marathon races, it was far from ideal for spectators to cheer the runners.

Most of the seven-odd kilometers heading to the finish line were deserted, while the stretch, in itself, was more narrow paths with sharp turns than majestic avenues that would have allowed fans to cheer the runners on.

Security played a big role there as well. During the women’s race, which was ran more-or-less on the same route at the finish, some protesters tried to jump over the barricade to disrupt the runners and security personnel were seen chasing them away. So, no chances were taken for the men’s race as there was a security official every few metres monitoring for trouble.

Security breach

Fortunately, both the marathon in the 2008 Beijing Games and in London, were run through the city and took in the sights. The Beijing run ended in the main stadium while in 2012, thousands of spectators could cheer on as the runners surged past many famous landmarks.

Marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics, though a spectator event, had a big incident after a drunken, de-frocked Irish priest tackled leader Vanderlei de Lima, who looked a certain winner as he was comfortably ahead in the final stages.

The Brazilian picked himself up to eventually win bronze but was awarded a special medal for sportsmanship by the International Olympic Committee. De Lima lit the flame at the Rio opening ceremony.

Closed event

Security fears also spoiled the marathon as a spectator event at the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games. Although the runners made a few laps on the majestic Rajpath, few fans were allowed anywhere near. And the streets were deserted as they came in to finish at Connaught Place.

Then Commonwealth Games Federation president, Mike Fennell, expressed disappointment after oppressive security measures barred fans from watching the cycling road races.

After Fennell criticised that there were few spectators to watch cycling despite the quality of the races, the organisers rushed to fix CCTV to draw at least some fans for the marathon.

The marathon has an elevated spiritual status in Japan. Four years on, let’s hope the grand race gets the pride of place, start to finish.

Landmarks

The perks of running or watching a marathon are the landmarks along the way. Here is a look at a few marathons and spots on the route that make them special:

London marathon — Big Ben, Westminster Abbey

Berlin marathon — Brandenburg Gate, Soviet War Memorial

San Francisco marathon — Golden Gate Bridge

Mumbai marathon — Gateway of India