Tim Holdsworth considers the impact of a calendar devoid of major participation events and wonders whether the scale of the loss will highlight the contribution they make to the UK’s cultural and sporting life.
This year the London Marathon took take place in October for the first time. The fortieth staging of the event served as a reminder of the extraordinary challenges set by the Covid crisis of 2020 and the exceptional capacity for innovation demonstrated by those determined to make the best of tough times. This year it was an elite-only race run on a park circuit in the centre of the capital but all around the world thousands of other runners took part in a virtual marathon, earning their medals remotely and ensuring that the spirit of the event is maintained.
The London Marathon is one of the biggest events of the UK sporting calendar. Every spring for the last four decades it has brought huge numbers of people onto the streets, all with a wide variety of roles and motivations.
There are the participants, of course, each with their own reasons for taking on the challenge of a marathon. Each has their own network of supporters, family and friends, helping them on the day or making their training possible over the preceding months. Also in attendance are the many thousands of spectators there simply to be part of an uplifting event and cheer the runners on. Next, there are the thousands of volunteers working at the water stations, the start village and the finish line, making sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible and representatives of the charities for whom the Marathon is one of the biggest annual fund-raising opportunities. On top of these we have the staff who work for the organising company, the local authorities, the media and other agencies who are on hand or behind the scenes to make the event possible and safe.
Add to all these the millions of us watching the whole affair on television from the safety of our sofas and you begin to get some idea of the scale of the event and its reach beyond the streets on the day.
And it is not just the London Marathon. From the Great North Run and the Manchester Marathon through to local half-marathons and 10K runs, a whole range of events all over the country provide a focal point for participation and motivation for those who wish to write their own sporting story.
It is easy to underestimate the impact of all these on participation and physical activity, particularly when a whole calendar of events has disappeared. How many people have been inspired to get active by seeing the London Marathon on TV, reading about one in their own area or seeing a local event in person on the streets of their own towns and cities? How many people are missing the camaraderie and inspiration of their local Park Run or club meeting…or looking ruefully at the darkening evenings and thinking that they should have been planning their training schedule for next spring’s event?
The cancellation of all these events has a profound impact beyond those intending to take part. A great many local charities rely on them as fund-raising opportunities and the loss of the related contributions will put a big hole in their revenue streams. Clubs often use events to raise their own funds, whether by supplying support staff for larger major mass participation or making them a focal point for their own club activity. Plus, even beyond this, we should not forget all the local suppliers – the sign-makers, the marquee companies, the stewarding companies – who will not be generating business from event organisers.
If we are trying to salvage something encouraging from our current, rather bleak circumstances, we might hope that this loss (albeit, we hope temporary) of events will strengthen our understanding and appreciation of the impacts, networks and motivations that they create, whatever their scale or what the headline activity may be.
In addition, while we can apply long-established formulae and models for calculating and demonstrating the economic impact of events, it is easy to overlook the value of the unexpected connections and unintended consequences they provide. Each person who puts on their trainers and steps out of their front door for the first time has their own unique mix of hopes and motivations but you can bet that an image of, or a story from, an event is in there somewhere.
The Covid crisis has clearly had a huge impact on the commercial event operators (we’ll look at this in more depth in another blog post soon) but many companies report that the majority of participants are carrying over their entries to next year. We can only hope that this will be a case of motivation and inspiration postponed rather than vanished, and that having seen what we’ve lost we will appreciate its return that much more.
Tim Holdsworth is a senior consultant at KKP.
Contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org