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Wan's Column - Marathon Tussle 2009

In November 2008, I hinted in my column that Kuala Lumpur International Marathon (KLIM) scheduled on 22 February 2009 may not take place. I was unfortunately correct when it was reported in Metro Star on 9 January 2009 that AmBank Group will not be part of the KLIM this year. AmBank Group, with its annual contribution of RM400,000 had been the title sponsor of the KLIM since 2004. The KLIM, organized by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and Federal Territory Amateur Athletics Association (FTAAA) had gained international recognition and was included in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) calendar. Based on this same report in Metro Star, it was reported that DBKL had informed AmBank that they are looking for other sponsors for the 2009 edition.

AmBank Group public affairs director Syed Anuar Syed Ali confirmed that they received a letter from DBKL regarding the KLIM. In the same letter, DBKL has indicated that they had a new sponsor and would like to thank Ambank Group for the support rendered since 2004. The same report in Metro Star also quoted FTAAA secretary S. Vegiyathuman that they have not received any feedback from DBKL though the event was scheduled on 22 February 2009.

The story took a twist later when Malaysian Amateur Athletic Union (MAAU) deputy president Karim Ibrahim announced that the national body has taken over the KL Marathon and tasked its new sponsor, Octagon-Asia with the organization of the 2009 event scheduled on June 28 (New Straits Times 21 January 2009). According to Karim, under the Sports Development Act, 1997, any international event held in the country must be held under the auspices of the national body and not a state body. KLIM will now be part of the worldwide Standard Chartered series of marathons with the Kuala Lumpur leg to be officially known as the Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2009. Karim declined to say if FTAAA has a role in the running of the event.

The next story that hit the press was on 6 February 2009 when the New Straits Times reported that FTAAA to organize their own marathon. At a press conference FTAAA senior vice president Leo Leslie Armstrong said that they have in the past left it to DBKL to secure a title sponsor when AmBank Group decided to withdraw as sponsors in June. (This statement did not tie back to the earlier report in the Star on 9 January 2009 that gave the impression that DBKL decided to take on a new sponsor)

“We had numerous meetings with the MAAU president (Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim) who each time assured us that we would be organizing the event” added Armstrong.

“But then they (MAAU) signed an agreement with a private company (Octagon-Asia) to organize a marathon in Kuala Lumpur but it was never tabled, discussed or endorsed by the council or the executive board.”

“Nor was it circulated to the board members for their views, comments or objections. Till this date FTAAA has not sighted this agreement. There are many grey areas which has left us all confused”
But Armstrong said of FTAAA will not accept defeat and has lodged a letter of complaint with the Sports Commissioner’s Office “on the irregularities and non-compliance of established procedures that MAAU failed to adhere when the agreement between the deputy president of MAAU (Karim Ibrahim) and the private company was signed.”  

“The FTAAA council was also unanimous in deciding to stage KLIM. We will be going on (with our plans) irrespective of whether there is a title sponsor”

FTAAA registered the Kuala Lumpur International Marathon and Kuala Lumpur Marathon as trademarks with the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia to preempt MAAU from taking over the event.

Ownership of KLIM
As a writer trying to piece together the facts from 3 separate news reports above, I know it is kind of confusing but one thing is very clear, FTAAA and MAAU are on war path over the rights to stage the KLIM. There may be two marathons in Kuala Lumpur this year with the Standard Chartered KL Marathon scheduled on 28 June 2009 by Octagon-Asia/MAAU while FTAAA has not announced their date yet. The legal ownership of KLIM is not very certain here; is it DBKL or FTAAA or as joint owners? I got the impression that DBKL is the event owner and FTAAA is the organizer, I may be wrong…….The finisher certificates I received for the 2006 to 2008 series mentioned that FTAAA and DBKL are joint organizers. In the 1984 and 1985 event, my finisher certificates indicate that Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad, the then Minister of Federal Territory (our current Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister)  was the patron and Ahmad Shah Tambakau, the Deputy Federal Territory Minister was the Organizing Chairman. This gives the impression that historically DBKL was the original owner of the event. If FTAAA can register KLIM as trademarks as claimed by Armstrong, they may be able to file an injunction to prevent MAAU from using KLIM as the event name. MAAU would probably have to use a more generic name in order not to violate the trademarks. I think this is a legal issue between FTAAA and MAAU based on the legal rights to KLIM. Is it a name rights strategy that MAAU intentionally call the event Standard Chartered KL Marathon and not Kuala Lumpur International Marathon to avoid the legal complications? I feel Octagon-Asia/MAAU should position themselves that they are not taking over the KLIM but starting a new marathon in Kuala Lumpur and call this event the inaugural Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2009.

While I will not be the judge over the controversies as I may not have all the inside facts, I am commenting based on what was published in the press and as a runner that has taken part in several of the past 17 KLIM series. I took part in the inaugural event in 1984, 1985, 2001, 2006, 2007 & 2008. I did not officially take part in the 2002 to 2005 series but supported the event via PACM Peer Support Program in helping PACM members to train for the event. On the event day, I ran the 21km route with the full marathon runners before performing my duty at the PACM base at Dataran Merdeka.

Now for the Numbers
Many of you would question the wisdom of having 2 marathons in Kuala Lumpur when the KLIM has stagnated with less than 1,000 full marathon finishers in each of the last 4 years when AmBank Group was the title sponsor. The demographic profile of runners is also discouraging with 66% of the full marathon runners are veterans in 2008. I have collected the data from the 2007 and 2008 KLIM chips results from the KLIM website (based on full marathon and half marathon finishers) and tallied the numbers in an attached sheet to this article; the numbers are not pretty. The total number of finishers for full marathon at 858 for 2008 and 826 for 2007 is very discouraging. Even with the half & full marathon together, we only have 2,425 finishers for 2008 as compared to 2,333 for 2007. At best we can describe the results as stagnation at a very low base! The demography has deteriorated and skewed towards the veterans, with the veterans forming 57% of the total half marathon and full marathon runners and compared to 50/50 in 2007. Please see attached worksheet for details and computation. 


In 2001, the participation of the KLIM and the Singapore Marathon (sponsored by Exxon Mobil then) are about the same, less than 6,000 for all categories. Since 2002 with the participation of Standard Chartered Bank, the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon has grown to 50,000 registrations in 2008 while the AmBank KLIM is still at about 6,000 level. The actual number of finishers for the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2008 was a staggering 40,926! (source - What is also very encouraging is that 81% of the marathon finishers are non-veterans; a clear indication of their success in getting their younger generation out to participate. The physical health of their younger generation is clearly better than us! (see worksheet attached) Another interesting data I extracted from their website is that the Singaporeans finishers were 10,624 for the full marathon out of 16,147. This means the foreign participation for the full marathon is 5,523 or 34%. The number could well doubled is we add on the half marathon and 10km participants. (I did not bother to count the number from the thousand of finishers from the web)  This means Singapore has turned their marathon into a very successful tourism project.

I do not have the full figures for the KLIM 2008 but based on the results from the chip time, we have 858 full marathon finishers and 1,567 half marathon finishers in 2008. The 6,000 number is my estimates as the 10km event is competed without chips and therefore the number is not disclosed. While there may be some degree of error in my estimate, it would be correct to conclude that the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon has grown by leaps and bounds since 2002 while the KLIM is a stagnated event. I am used to the way the corporate sector works, we have Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and if the total participation did not grow while another event in a neighboring country grown so much, there are key non-performance issues in the KLIM. Naturally, the sponsors will question their continuous involvement in a stagnant event. It would definitely be more soul searching for the sponsors in a recession year like 2009. Stagnation aside, we must also give credit to FTAAA for keeping the event going for most of the 17 years that the event was held. In the last 25 years since the commencement in 1984, there were 8 years the KLIM was not held, probably due to sponsorship issues. After a lapse of a few years, FTAAA successfully brought in Total Sports Asia Sdn Bhd as the promoter for the KLIM 2000.  The partnership did not go far as Total Sports Asia was unable to make a commercial success out of KLIM and compensated FTAAA by buying out their contract in 2002.

Free Market & Competition
While all these chaos are going on I am happy that there will be 2 competing marathons in Kuala Lumpur. Let me explain my optimism. I am a firm believer of free market and competition. I believe competition brings out the best in performance, and organizers of marathon are of no exceptions. I have always preached that runners are customers and event organizers are selling their services. There is a need for good customer service at every contact point between the event organizer and the runners (customers). I have this analogy to offer; just compare our two airlines, MAS and Air Asia. Prior to Air Asia coming in, MAS has the monopoly, we have bad service and over priced fares. It cost me RM800 to fly KL/Kota Kinabalu back in 1984 when oil prices were USD25 per barrel. At the height of the oil prices in mid 2008 at USD 140 per barrel, I booked my Air Asia tickets at RM420 for the same route, flying in a brand new plane. Since then MAS has lowered their fares substantially and improved on their services all round. See what competition can do to our airlines……………got my drift? 

Wan at the last km of the run in the KLIM 2008 (Pix courtesy of Gary Goh)

Kelvin Loh, Chine, Ivy Chan and Wan after the KLIM 2008 at PACM Tent

Sonny Ng, Wan, Wong Siew Yin and PACM members after the KLIM 2008 at PACM Tent.

Personally, I like to see MAAU and FTAAA compete head on in coming out with a better marathon. The judge will be us runners. The winner will grow from strength to strength and the loser will just limp along or perish. When there is a choice, we runners can decide which event to run in Kuala Lumpur and do not have to spend lots of money to experience a world class event in neighboring Singapore. I would even go on to encourage PACM to enter the field by having its own marathon in a 3 horse race. PACM could upgrade its successful Great Eastern Pacesetters 30km into a full fledged marathon. The Great Eastern Pacesetters 30km was first introduced in 2006 as a warm-up event for KLIM. It was intentionally scheduled on the 3rd week of January, 6 weeks before the KLIM that used to be held on the 1st weekend of March. Since then, the KLIM has their dates moving about but still within March. Last year, KLIM chose 30 March 2008, clashing with the Cheng Beng (Chinese All Soul Day) weekend and we runners have to compete with worshipers driving into Old Airport Road for space. The Great Eastern Pacesetters 30km started with 947 runners in 2006 (30km and 20km) and has grown to 2,200 registrations for 2009. If you look at the numbers, the Great Eastern Pacesetters 30km is having bulk of the long distance runners taking part in events 20km or longer. It has strong potential to become the first marathon to be organized by a local running club. Should we not dream big? After all, the iconic New York City Marathon is own and organized by the New York Runners, the largest running club in the world with more than 40,000 members (

Strategies Moving Forward
While it is easy to be a critic, we should also throw out some ideas how local marathons could be done better. It is even better if we could play a role in making things happen. However, let throw some ideas first and I would like to talk about the Blue Ocean Strategy. This phrase got famous based on a book by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne with the same name. My estimate is we have about 3,000 runners in the country that are able or willing to run a race 20km and above. Most of them are in the running clubs such as PACM and others. I considered this group from the Red Ocean, most of them are already regular participants of road races and they don’t need a lot of convincing to take part. They would have at least done a 21km race in the last 12 months, trying to fit into their busy working schedule. They are more likely to be over 40 years of age as indicated in my analysis of the KLIM finishers for 2007 & 2008 attached. If the two marathons are competing in this Red Ocean of 3,000 regular runners, the results would be at best stagnant again.

We need to focus on the Blue Ocean, the 20 to 35 years age group that currently don’t run; not even a 10km race. They have enough reasons not to run; from work stress to short of time in this competitive world. There are many good reasons to run as well. It is up to the organizers to walk the extra mile to market the event. I feel the best source of new runners is in the larger companies. Most large companies have sports & social clubs, the focus these days is usually on less physical activities such as motor treasure hunts. We need to convince the companies to participate in runs via their sports club. KLIM would need to carry out presentations or talk to the staff of the large companies to convince them that it is cool and healthy to run. This strategy can be repeated with the government agencies, the arm forces, police department, the secondary schools, universities and colleges. The measure of success is increase entries, any categories will do initially; just bring in the mass.

In 2004 when I took part in the Blackmores Sydney Marathon, I saw a large group of ING employees taking part even though they were not sponsors. All their 400 staff wore their bright orange T-shirts for the event and they have a large tent at the finish area serving breakfast to their runners. Imagine you are from a large company and want to organize a run for your staff, it would be a lot of hassle and costs. You would only need to pay the equivalent to the entry fees, rental for a tent and breakfast if you just join in the KLIM. If KLIM can get 20 large companies to send in entries, it would be a sizeable number. Initially, it need not be 42km or 21km, just get most of them to try running a 10km, once they are hooked on to running, the 21km or 42km comes naturally.

Jamie, Wan, Ivy , Kim & Daniel after their KLIM 2007 run.

The grand Finisher Gate for KLIM 2007

There is a lot more ground work such as public coaching clinics to be carried out to generate the interest. There is no single silver bullet in building up an event that has stagnated for several years. The key lies in diligently executing a good idea on the ground…..execution, execution, execution and walking the talk. Finally, I would like to touch on the experience of the actual day itself. If the very basic of having enough water at water stations cannot be relied on, all other effort may be wasted. Last year 2 stations for the 21km ran out of water. There are lots of diligent support services for a marathon and the devil is in the details. If local organizers refused to pay attention to details and repeat the mistakes year after year, even regular runners will shy away from the local marathon and opt to run in the neighboring countries such as Singapore. This is already happening……… in case the local organizers are not aware.

I may sound critical but I say all this for the good of the local marathons. Local marathon organizers must accept constructive critics to change.  If we are unwilling to face up with what we have not done right and constantly in a state of denial, we will never improve while others (such as Singapore) have improved by leaps and bounds. I have been frank about it and it reflects my experience and feelings with local marathons since 1984. As a senior runner, I look forward to 3 great marathons in Kuala Lumpur benchmark against the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon! Is this too much to ask for?

Live life and run on…………my friends!

Wan Yew Leong
9 February 2009


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