A Gold Standard Race – The story of the Singapore Marathon

standard chartered SCSM GOLD STANDARD

It is the grandest and most historic running event in Singapore. The Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM) is truly a world-class spectacle, attracting tens of thousands of runners internationally every single year. Its International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Gold Label status, which it has held since 2012, puts it in the esteemed company of the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon.

If anything, the SCSM is THE race that runners in Singapore peak for and with the event held on the first Sunday of December annually, it is a fitting grand finale to the local running season.

The success of the SCSM is undeniable and most certainly, it has come a long way since the late 1970s and 1980s, when mass-participation runs were just starting to establish themselves in Singapore’s sports calendar. Singapore’s national marathon (a general term for now, as the race went through various guises throughout its history) was simply a grassroots movement to get people jogging before it evolved into its current form.

 

JOGGING TO GOOD HEALTH

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The genesis of Singapore’s national marathon can be probably traced back to the Japanese occupation. In 1942, 54 people took part in the Syonan Marathon. Although, it was just a marathon by name as the route, which started at the Padang and ended at the Chureito Memorial in Bukit Batok Hill, covered only 10.5 miles.

While there was a handful of running events that were held after the Japanese occupation, an organised marathon aimed at the masses didn’t officially happen (at least, on a national scale) until the Jogging Association of Singapore (JAS) put together the first Singapore Marathon Jog in 1976.

The event’s objective was to nurture a sports culture in Singapore and to drive home the message that jogging is good for health.

Chan Chee Seng, the then Parliamentary Secretary of Social Affairs and president of the JAS, told local newspaper, The Straits Times prior to the event: “There is nothing to lose and no dignity lost even if you are unable to complete the course because in the philosophy of the Marathon Jog, everybody is a winner whether you complete the whole course or part of it.”

To prime participants for the marathon, the JAS organised a series of preparatory runs throughout the year. There was a 12km run in April, followed by a half marathon in July and a three-quarter marathon in October before the full 42.195km on the first Sunday of December 1976.

standard chartered SCSM GOLD STANDARD MAP OF 76

There weren’t “early bird discounts” or “corporate packages” back then. In fact, participants did not have to pay a single cent at events organised by the JAS. People who were keen to participate simply had to turn up at the starting point before flag off, get an identification disc and run. Those who completed the quarter, half, three-quarter or full distances received certificates of participation.

15,000 runners were expected for the first Singapore Marathon Jog. In the end, there were 11,229 starters (making it arguably the world’s biggest jogging event then) with 7,163 finishing the full marathon. The Singapore Marathon Jog was a biennial affair, with the subsequent races held in 1978 and 1980.

The organisers adopted a similar format for the 1978 race, which was remembered for its unfortunate postponement due to the island-wide floods. According to an article on New Nation newspaper, JAS president Chan could not get to the start point because the area where he lived was completely flooded. When he eventually arrived, he had to make the announcement to postpone the event to more about 500 hardcore jogging enthusiasts who stuck to the event’s motto, “Rain or Shine”. Luckily, the weather cleared up the following Sunday and about 8,000 people turned up at the starting line.

With better weather conditions, the 1980 Singapore Marathon Jog saw a rebound in participation numbers, with 13,550 turning up at the start point and 3,250 completing the marathon. The growing numbers must have been really encouraging for the JAS.

 

GOING INTERNATIONAL

standard chartered SCSM GOLD STANDARD START OF 82

If you do an online search on “Singapore Marathon”, you’ll notice that 1982 is often cited as the year that the “Singapore Marathon” was established. But more specifically, it is the first year when a competitive mass-participation marathon was held in Singapore.

As the Singapore International Marathon (SIM) was a competition, runners were ranked and prizes were given to the fastest finishers.  Competitors were required to register themselves through the proper channels, although, the organisers also welcomed casual joggers to “simply turn up” at the starting point.

For the organisation of the SIM, the JAS was joined by Singapore Sports Council (now called Sport Singapore) and the Singapore Amateur Athletics Association (SAAA). Together, they form the Singapore International Marathon Organising Committee.

As its name would suggest, the SIM wanted world-class runners from beyond Singapore to take part in the race. Letters of invitation were sent out to countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and South Korea, inviting runners who could complete a marathon in 2:09 to 2:18 for men, and 2:30 to 2:35 for women.

To help make their decision to travel to Singapore a little easier, the organisers convinced sponsors like Singapore International Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Board to provide airfares, accommodation, meals, transport and other expenses for the visitors. In short, foreign runners enjoyed an all-expense paid trip to compete at the SIM.

Needless to say, a lot of funds and resources were needed to put together an event of such proportions. For this, organising secretary Goh Teck Phuan was widely credited among the Singapore athletics fraternity for convincing corporate entities and even financial institutions to support the SIM, be it with money or in kind. Goh told The Straits Times that the SIM is expected to receive more than US$300,000 in sponsorship value, which went a long way in making the 1982 race a success.

In the end, 2,832 registered runners and in total, there were about 8,000 starters at the inaugural SIM. United Kingdom’s Raymond Crabb won the race in 2:24:19, while Goh Gam Seng won the men’s local category in 2:43:55. Winnie Ng from Hong Kong won the women’s race in 2:55:11.

standard chartered SCSM GOLD STANDARD WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS

Said Chan Chee Seng, chairman of the Organising Committee, at the post-event dinner: “From all accounts it was a memorable event; very exhausting perhaps for the marathoners who had to contend with our tropical heat and humidity and some anxiety on the part of the organisers, but nevertheless, a satisfying and enriching experience for all those who completed the full distance.”

 

A DECLINE IN NUMBERS

The 1990s was a relatively bleak era for marathon running in Singapore. The organisers, particularly the SIM’s, were battling on two fronts; they had to attract more participants and more sponsors.

To address the former, the SIM tried to make the race more attractive by adding more features such as having the new Sentosa bridge as the starting and ending points of the race in 1992, awarding certificates to people who finished at the quarter, half and three-quarter marks in 1994 and tweaking the flag off times to make it easier for the participants to be at the starting point in time.

In 1996, the Organising Committee even catered buses to the 12 sports complexes around Singapore to bring runners to the National Stadium. Things did not get better, apparently. Goh lamented in his message that was published in the 1998 souvenir magazine, “there were only 1,716 registered competitors…it was people’s marathon which should attract more participants.”

It was a similar situation at the Mobil Marathon; the headlines from the local dailies indicated a downward trend. In 1991, The Straits Times heading read, “7,000 expected at ‘people’s marathon”, four years later it was “More than 5,000 expected to start” and in 1997, it was “3,000 to take part in Marathon”. Perhaps, the marathon running trend just did not catch on back then.

Sponsors were also hard to come by, due largely to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The Mobil Marathon had the backing of the global oil company, but the SIM had to canvass for sponsors since day one.

Things came to a head in 1998, when the lack of sponsors forced the SIM’s organisers to cut the event into half, literally.

SAAA’s Loh told The Straits Times that year: “The sponsors are not forthcoming and we’ve got to improvise. A half-marathon will be well within the association’s means.”

His colleague, Goh, added: “The old faithfuls who have been behind us in the past are unable to fork out the cash. In a good year, we can easily raise $250,000, but not so this time around.”

Fortunately for Loh and his team, the Singapore Sports Council contributed $50,000 in late August 1998 and along with tweaks to the amount of prize money, the event reverted to a full 42.185km race.

It was a similar situation in 2000; SIM had to scramble for sponsors and to make matters worse, the cost of running the event went up because of the need to engage private contractors.

The Straits Times’ Elgen Kua wrote in a September 2000 article, “in previous years, the police provided the services for traffic and crowd control while the Ministry of Environment covered the duties of cleaning and maintaining the event. But from this year (2000), given the fact that the SIM is regarded as a private event, the ministry has requested the organisers to employ a private contractor. The police have also asked the organisers to engage Cisco officers.”

 

Merger and a New Title Sponsor

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In 2001, The SIM and Mobil Marathon decided to pool their resources and merge to form the Singapore ExxonMobil International Marathon. The key stakeholders were very optimistic that the race, which featured a new route and a bigger prize purse, would be a springboard for Singapore to transform into a regional sports hub.

Said SAAA secretary Sarvindar Singh to the press: “Having the marathon as an international sporting event ties up well with the Committee on Sporting Singapore’ recommendation that we build up the local sports industry. It not only fulfils this need but also, help increase sports participation and develop a sporting culture.”

More importantly, the added buzz attracted more participants, from 1,918 in 2000 to 3,156 in 2001.

There was more good news the following year. 2002 was when Singapore’s national marathon transformed into a race of international standards.

British multinational bank Standard Chartered became the race’s title sponsor and along with that came a massive million dollar injection. The race’s prize money went up to an unprecedented $100,000, which attracted better quality participants globally. The route was tweaked and more safety measures were implemented to give participants a better and safer race experience. The 2002 route had a more even terrain, it was shadier (and thus cooler) and the organisers added more hydration points. Metal barriers were also put up to protect runners from the traffic.

The 2002 race was also better marketed and produced, evident from the improved media coverage and promotional events leading up to race day.

6,000 participated in first marathon of the “Standard Chartered” era, a rather humble figure considering how the event has grown in the subsequent years. Indeed, the numbers climbed quickly, peaking in 2011 when the race had a record 65,000 runners participating in the various categories.

With Standard Chartered’s three-year, $10.5 million sponsorship renewal signed in April 2014, the Standard Chartered Marathon looks set to continue its growth and further establish itself as one of the best sports events in the region.

Words: Ong Cheow Eng

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