It was like April Fool’s Day came a week early. On Friday (26 March), Japan Running News reported that the estimable Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship will cease to exist after its 2021 edition, ending a run of 75 years, a victim of changing times and lack of sponsorship.
What was once the crown jewel of the sport, the unofficial world championship, the race where Australia’s Derek Clayton ran the first sub-2:10 in history in 1967; where Frank Shorter established his marathon career by stringing four titles together from 1971 to ‘74; where Toshiko Seko three-peated from ‘78 to ‘80 before adding a fourth win in `83; where Rob de Castella joined countryman Clayton as a world record holder in 1981 (2:08:18); and the late Sammy Wanjiru won his marathon debut in 2007; after 2021, all that history will have no more added to it.
JRN reported that Fukuoka will shut down because the JAAF, which stages the event, couldn’t round up new sponsors, that TV production was too expensive, and that the popular Ekiden racing season and near-calendar mass participation events all factored into making the last Elite-only marathon in Japan untenable.
World Athletics just launched A Global Conversation initiative which asks people who love the sport what WA could do to help secure the future of the sport. Well, here’s one thing, help save Fukuoka.
Though even more significant due to its age and list of champions, Fukuoka’s impending demise has echoes in the past.
In 1981, the Cascade Run-Off 15K in Portland, Oregon became the test case for open prize money racing in the sport. Under the auspices of the Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA), Cascade challenged the long-standing, but hypocritical amateur ethic which ruled the sport since its inception in the 19th century. The race helped develop whatever version of professionalism now exists in the sport of road running. In other words, it was a race of historic significance.
Yet when Nike pulled its sponsorship a few years later and local organizers couldn’t find an immediate replacement, rather than the broader road race community rushing in to bridge the gap until a new sponsor could be found, the event just died, taking with it a seminal milestone in the history of the sport.
40 years later nothing has changed. This, in a bitter nutshell, is what’s wrong with the sport, every event is a universe of one, living or dying on its own while heaven sits mute.
Despite organizations whose names suggest unity, there’s nothing that actually links the fortunes of the sport as a whole, no sense that ‘we are all in this together”.
Here’s another case. After its 1967 meeting in the Boston Garden, the BAA Indoor Games folded after its own run of 75 years when the Boston Athletic Association refused to pay athletes and the top people stopped coming, and thus the paying crowd, too. Why do you think the Boston running community was so up in arms in the mid-1980s when the Marathon was slipping into oblivion for the same reason and the BAA at the time didn’t seem to mind?
If it weren’t for Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who was an avid runner with the power to drag the BAA board of governors kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and the subsequent arrival of John Hancock Financial Services as a non-intrusive sponsor, who knows what or if the world’s oldest marathon would still be with us.
Culture and its heritage reflect and shape values, beliefs, and aspirations, and help define a people’s identity. The Fukuoka Marathon played such a role for over seven decades, not just in Japan, but for the sport of marathoning worldwide. After 2021, that rich heritage will be no more. It’s more than the end of a race. Where’s the Ray Flynn and John Hancock to save Fukuoka?