Embedded in the local but open to the world – treasure the London Marathon | Alex Betts

Holding an arcane running world record gives the writer a rare insight into the event

Over the past year, I have run all of these world marathon majors: London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, Tokyo and Boston. In fact, I am a world record holder – albeit of the obscure record of running this full set of six (known as the Abbott World Marathon Majors) with a faster combined time than anyone else has run as a single series (an average of two hours, 41 minutes per marathon).

But, like the other people who will run wacky world records in the London race today, including those in costume, the primary goal was not to set the record but to use the run as a means to raise money and awareness. (In my case, for an Oxford-based refugee charity, Asylum Welcome.)

Each of the “majors” has its advantages: Berlin is fast, Boston requires time qualification, New York goes through five boroughs. But on several metrics London stands out as the best. It has more applications than any other race in the world, raises more money for charity and attracts more of the top-level runners. From Greenwich to Tower Bridge and on to Westminster, its carnival atmosphere is unsurpassed.

In my day job, I focus on refugees and immigration. In the aftermath of the so-called European refugee crisis, migration was among the most salient and divisive issues in the Brexit vote and in other European elections. This is one of many areas in which the marathon can play an important unifying role. At a time when the country is divided and British identity is contested, the marathon is a example of something we do together outstandingly. It deserves to be celebrated as such.

From a sporting perspective, this year’s event has the potential to be one of the greatest marathons in history. The men’s race will pit Mo Farah against Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele, arguably the two best distance runners in the world. Both of them have a shot at breaking the world record. In the women’s race, Mary Keitxany will attempt to break Paula Radcliffe’s longstanding women’s world record.

London, though, matters for reasons that go beyond elite competition. Hugh Brasher, the race director, is correct to claim that “since 1981, the London Marathon has been an extraordinary force for good that has inspired profound social change”.

These impacts are arguably more important today than ever. The Brexit referendum revealed deep divisions in our society, based on geography, age and social class. As across the western world, there is a profound divide between those who embrace globalisation and those who fear it. It might seem a grand claim, but the London Marathon reconciles some of these tensions. It combines outward-looking internationalism with deep community engagement. It exemplifies how working inclusively across national boundaries can bring local benefits – echoes of my day job.

The most obvious contribution of the race is its role in charitable fundraising. Last year’s race raised £65.1m, more than any other marathon. It set an 11th straight world record for a single-day charity fundraising event.

But fundraising is just one aspect of the marathon’s social impact. There is also important symbolism, which comes from the event’s inclusive nature. Today, the viewing public will be firmly behind Mo Farah. He strongly self-identifies as British, but we should not forget that he arrived as a refugee from Somalia. And there are other examples: Ethiopian Olympian Feyisa Lilesa lives in exile in Arizona, having crossed his arms in an “X” shape as he finished the Rio Olympics marathon in solidarity with the oppressed Oromo people. Former London winner Tegla Loroupe served as chef de mission of the refugee team at the Rio Olympics.

More generally, one remarkable feature of marathons is that they level the playing field, albeit temporarily. A 26.2 mile run has no respect for wealth, social class, race, nationality or immigration status. All that matters is speed, endurance and character. The ubiquitous marathon image of Kenyans and Ethiopians leading the race subverts global economic hierarchies. People from all backgrounds participate in an event in which black east Africans are celebrated as the best in the world.

And London is profoundly inclusive. It may only have 40,000 places to offer but they are equitably distributed. The marathon is one of the few sports in which amateurs can play in the same field as global superstars – the equivalent to being able to wander on to the pitch at Wembley and join in. The majority of places go to British residents, but they are from all walks of life. There are races within the race, including the British national championships and even the Oxford-Cambridge varsity marathon.

The race consistently generates inspiring stories that defy the odds. Last year, amateur Josh Griffiths caught up with the elites to finish 13th and qualify for the world championships. Meanwhile, Swansea Harriers athlete Matthew Rees stopped 300 metres from the end to help struggling Chorlton Runners’ athlete David Wyeth to cross the line. This year, 87-year-old John Starbrook will be the oldest runner, participating in his 33rd London Marathon. And at a time when it is most needed, the London Marathon highlights so much of what Britain can be – a country of inclusivity, tolerance and solidarity.

Alexander Betts is professor of forced migration and international affairs at the University of Oxford

Alex Betts

The GuardianTramp

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