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Wan's Column - Of Foreign Runners & Jaguh Kampung

Of late the local road races got more colorful and we witness the participation of more elite foreign runners, especially the Kenyans. The Kenyans who are the strongest road runners in the world have been making a clean sweep of the local road races, especially in the Men Open category. Recently in the Siemen 10km 2007, the top 8 in the Men Category were Kenyans. Even in the New Balance Pacesetters 15km 2007 (with no prize monies), the top 5 positions were captured by the Kenyans. I took part in the event and before I went into the second loop, the 5 Kenyans passed me. They won in the most impressive time ever recorded in the event that I have not seen as the Race Director from 2003 to 2006.

While I can't speak on behalf of other event owners, I must say as a Pacesetters member, I am delighted that the Kenyans are competing in our club events; the New Balance Pacesetters 15km and the Great Eastern Pacesetters 30km as it is great to be able to run in the same event with these great athletes.

During the last four Standard Chartered Singapore Marathons, I have been running the 21km category. There is a stretch of road when the 42km runners meet the 21km runners. The leading pack of about 20 runners was made up of nearly all Africans and the chasing pack of another 20 runners was made up of Caucasians and Asians. I recall we clapped to acknowledge these great runners and we feel great to be in the same race with them.

The emergence of the Kenyans in local road races has angered a group of local elite runners who felt their livelihood has been threatened. They used to be able to win prize monies easily with minimum competition but now they are miles apart from the foreign runners. Please mind my pun here as during the recent New Balance Pacesetters 15km 2007, the finishing time of the first local runners was 8 minutes 5 seconds from the winning Kenyans and that translates into approximately 2.2km. The local elite runners first made known their displeasure during the Power 10km 2007 when most of them were reluctant to compete. This has resulted in some discussion as to whether the foreign runners are allowed in local road races.

Foreign elites at the Great Eastern Pacesetters 30K 2007

Two of the local elite runners who claimed to represent the local runners wrote a letter dated 31 March 2007 to the Malaysian Amateur Athletic Union with copies to various sports personalities complaining about foreign runners (Thais, Kenyans, Myanmaris and Japanese) participation in local road races. In their letter, the local elite runners claimed that an agent has been bringing in the foreign runners and the winnings are shared between the agent and runners (30:70). They are of the view that foreign runners should only be allowed in International Marathons, confined to 42km only. Local road races should be kept exclusively for local runners and they want MAAU to act on it and get the event sponsors to comply with the proposed ruling.

This matter was first discussed during the launch of the Power Run 2007 on 10 April 2007 at Wisma OCM when Dato' James Selveraj, senior marketing manager of Bata (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd was quoted that they have received entries from 80 Kenyan runners and they are scaring away the local elite runners. I think the number was exaggerated; it is more like about 10 to 15 Kenyan runners are active in the local circuits.

Dato' Sieh Kok Chi, Secretary General of the Olympic Council of Malaysia after consulting various parties put up a proposal based on his personal views.

Excerpts from the report are as follows;

  • Road Race Organizers and sponsors feel that Malaysian runners do not have the fighting spirit and ought to stop grumbling, but to train harder to beat the foreign runners. They claim that Malaysian runners are spoilt, pampered and are too soft. The counter argument is that distance running is just developing in Malaysia and like Malaysia's own Proton car, Malaysian runners need to be protected against foreign intrusion into the Malaysian running market.
  • Mr. Thana, manager of Team Asics - Powerbar said that his runners are not against foreign runners participating in Malaysian road races but only in International Races like the Kuala Lumpur International Marathon and not minor races with a few hundred ringgit prize monies. He acknowledges that the prize monies help to motivate the local runners to compete as they are from poor families, and help to clear the objections from their parents to continue running.

Category Winners of the Great Eastern Pacesetters 30K 2007

Some of the suggestions for consideration were;

  1. two open categories, one for foreign runners and one for local runners
  2. to classify races as national or international based on prize monies offered (less than RM4,000 classified as national)
  3. foreign runners must produce written evidence that their entries are submitted through their NSAs for Track and Field and are sanctioned by their respective NSAs.
  4. foreign runners with a valid work permit or PR status to enter local as local runners.
  5. Runners from SEA region can enter as local runners.
  6. foreign students, other than from SEA region be treated as foreign runners and cannot enter as local runners.
  7. foreign runners from one country can only win one prize in one event, irrespective of how many runners have been entered and high number of places they finished.

The report went on to say that the above suggestions are to assist in finding an amicable solution, based on fair but completely free market principles. Up and coming runners need to be nurtured and to a certain degree protected. Malaysia used to be a powerhouse in distance running in the SEA region but during the last decade or so, the standard of distance running has dropped so much that no Malaysians has won medal in the last few SEA Games in distance running.

While I appreciate the middle path report from Dato' Sieh, I have my own views on this. I need to rebut the theory that prize monies contribute to producing better long distance runners. Events classified as long distances are event 3,000 metres and longer. 800m and 1,500m are classified as middle distances. Therefore, in long distances, we have 3,000m. 5,000m and 10,000m in track events while the marathon (42.19km) is the only road event in multi-sports competition such as SEA Games, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Olympic Games. We have been having generous prize monies in road races since 1984 when the 1st KL International Marathon was held. Since then many local road races with generous prize monies were held but we have not witness any good long distance runners coming out of it. The last great long distance runner we have was the great M. Ramachandran, our 17th SEA Games double gold medalist in 1993 for 5,000m and 10,000m. Rama was not active in road races and he was very focus in his training to don the Malaysian colors till his tail end of his running career. He is one of the few Malaysian athletes with numerous SEA Games medals, the exact number I am not sure. Since then, all the prizes monies from road races did not produce any long distance runners of regional standard, let alone Asian standard.

Foreign elites charging forward at the start of the adidas King Of The Road 2007

As an event organizer as well as a road race participant, I feel we should be very clear with our objectives and the budget constraint that we will always face. It is our primary objective to promote the sports of road running and we want to encourage the masses to take part. There are many individuals out there jogging to keep fit, taking part in road races will help them to stay motivated. PACM as a club work hard to facilitate such individuals to run. We were not satisfied with many of the runs organized by various municipals as we feel the average runners were shortchanged. We have our objectives very clearly in mind when PACM first ventured into event management with the Nike Pacesetters 15km 2003. We were modeling our event along those in Southern Thailand, the Hatyai Nature Run and the Songkhla International Marathon. We used to patronize these two runs till the political unrest in recent years. We decided that our budget shall mainly be used for the benefits of all the runners and not just for the winners. Therefore, we refused to offer prize monies from day one. We set aside a big portion of the budget for a quality vest, finisher medal, a decent breakfast, a photo-certificate and most of all a safe route. It was the right formula and the two signature events, the New Balance Pacesetters 15km and the Great Eastern Pacesetters 30km were growing from strength to strength despite having a small budget. In the case of the Mizuno Wave Run, although it is not a PACM event, they were convinced by our beliefs and values towards road races and did not deviate from our beliefs. Likewise the Mizuno Wave Run is growing from strength to strength with 1,400 already signed up at time of writing this. I believe it will hit 2,000 entries this year.

This subject was also discussed at length at the recent FTAAA Council Meeting on 10 July 2007. The council decided that foreign runners should not be prevented from taking part in local races with prize monies. The council would also advise the event owners not to have prize monies for local races. I hope more local event owners will heed the call of not having prize monies and use the savings to give a better deal to all runners. My advice to our elite local runners; go train with the Kenyans while they are here and improve yourselves! It is a global world out there and we cannot hope to survive based on protectionism. It is the same with our jobs, if we don't get better, foreigners will come and take away our jobs.

Wan Yew Leong
26 August 2007


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