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Organizers of the postponed 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon announced today that the gala 40th edition their event would proceed as an elite-only race on a closed course within St. James's Park in Central London on Sunday, October 4. Organizers said that they would create a "secure biosphere," a contained COVID-safe environment, which would allow the race to be run on a small circuit, at least for top athletes. Citizen runners will only be able to participate remotely, running on their own.
"We have been working for months on a number of different scenarios with the health and safety of our runners, our charities, our sponsors, our volunteers, our medics, our communities and our city always our priority," said event director Hugh Brasher who revealed that his team had also worked on hosting a COVID-safe mass event by employing cutting-edge social distancing technology. "We had detailed plans to deliver a socially-distanced mass participation event –-either a run or a walk-– and we were planning to utilise new technology to do this. We were looking to use a revolutionary technology using Bluetooth and ultra wideband ranging, which is about to be launched worldwide."
But the mass-race plan was ultimately unworkable because, among other issues, it would have been impossible to assure the safety of spectators who traditionally crowd the 42.195-kilometer course from Blackheath to the London Mall. Like other top-level sporting events which are being contested during the pandemic, spectators will have to stay home and watch on television.
"The biggest challenges were not those involving participants but the multiple issues of managing spectators, ensuring the emergency services had access across London with the recent changes to the roadscape, the increased likelihood of a second spike that has led to the recent cancellation of spectator trials at major events, and the ongoing concern about the pressure even a reduced size mass participation marathon might put on the NHS (National Health Service)," Brasher added.
The Tokyo Marathon took a similar approach at the beginning of the pandemic holding an elite-only race on March 1. That race, which went through the streets of Tokyo, had only 151 finishers (107 men and 44 women). The four other races of the Abbott World Marathon Majors scheduled for this year --Bank of America Chicago Marathon, BMW Berlin Marathon, Boston Marathon, and TCS New York City Marathon-- were all canceled as in-person events. The Boston Marathon was postponed from April to September, but was later canceled.
In London, the primary match-up announced last spring between Olympic gold medalists Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia will still be at the center of this year's men's race, organizers said. The women's race will be led by world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya who, like Kipchoge, is the London Marathon defending champion. There will also be elite wheelchair races led by Manuela Schär of Switzerland and David Weir of Great Britain.
In addition, Brasher said that the 2021 edition of his race would be held in the fall, on October 3, and not in late April as is tradition. That way, he said, the mass race had the greatest chance of actually being staged should the pandemic drag on for more than 18 months.
From a financial perspective, it is very difficult to stage an elite-only race. Race organizers depend on entry fees from tens of thousands of participants as a significant source of revenue, and race sponsors depend on large gatherings of people to justify their investment in such events. It is not clear what the financial impact will be to the event to stage an elite-only race.
Moreover, the race is a significant charity fund-raiser, one of the largest in the world of any kind. In 2019 it delivered GBP 66.4 million (USD 87.3 million) in charitable contributions. Although this year's marathon will still raise money for charity via remote participation by citizen runners, the total raised is likely to be much less than usual.
Still, it is remarkable that the event can be held at all, something to celebrate in a year that most people would rather forget.
"The London Marathon is far more than just a marathon," Brasher said. "It brings society together in a moment of celebration of all that is good about humanity. We believe that Sunday, October 4, will be a London Marathon like no other, and The 40th Race will take the spirit of the world's greatest marathon to every corner of the globe, with runners raising vital funds for the charities that have been so severely affected by the economic effects of the pandemic."