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IAAF Attempting Bold Experiment In Copenhagen

World Half Marathon Championships will take place simultaneously with citizens race.

World Half Marathon Championships will take place simultaneously with citizens race. 

(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission. 

COPENHAGEN — On a chilly fall day in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2005, the late IAAF General Secretary István Gyulai sat at a poorly attended press conference in advance of the IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships. Gyulai, who would die just five months later after a long illness, was asked to comment on the the status of the next day’s championships. The Hungarian Olympian paused, looking somber.

“We can all agree that these are a sick championships,” he said, because of the lack of enthusiasm from athletes, media and fans.

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Since then, the IAAF has watched with some dismay as participatory road running has boomed around the world, while interest in the World Half Marathon Championships has remained flat. Several fixes were tried, including calling them the “IAAF World Road Running Championships” in 2006 (held at the 20K distance) and 2007, to beginning to hold the championships every two years after the 2010 edition in Nanning, China (the World Half and World Cross Country Championships are now held in alternate years).

But tomorrow’s race here represents the boldest change ever for these championships. For the first time since 1992 when the event was held in conjunction with the Great North Run in England, the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships will be part of a massive people’s half marathon with 30,000 runners. Indeed, organizers confirmed to Race Results Weekly here today that there will be a unified results list showing the finish places of citizen runners with those competing in the championships (the championships women run in a separate, early-start race).

“There’s an old saying that success has many fathers,” said the Danish Athletics Federation CEO Jakob Larsen who has been the driving force behind marrying the championships with a mass race. “This is also true in this case.”

Larsen said that he got the idea after watching the UCI World Cycling Championships which were held here in 2011. He thought that those championships could be even better if recreational cyclists were somehow allowed also to participate with the pros.

“The idea sort of grew on us that initially we wanted to have a mass-participation race as it has been done on several occasions at these championships,” Larsen continued. “What really happened was in 2011, Copenhagen hosted the World Cycling Championships and we were there. We saw in the future, what if ordinary people could have taken part, actually taken advantage of (these) very spectacular settings? What if?”

The Danish Federation took the idea to the IAAF and it was warmly received. IAAF President Lamine Diack saw the mass race as a great way to embrace all levels of road running on the same day, calling it today “a unique mix” of elite and mass participation.

“What other global sport offers the chance to be part of a world championships?” Diack asked the assembled media here today.

In addition, the Copenhagen organizers proposed to hold the race in a different time frame. Traditionally, the race was held in late September and early October, but by that time of year the big marathons were already taking center stage, drawing away even more fan and media attention. By holding these championships at the end of March, the IAAF was able to draw in more track and cross country athletes, plus marathoners who are not running spring marathons.

“We think it’s a better date for the athletes,” Larsen said.

Indeed, the 2016 IAAF World Half Marathon will also be held in the early spring on March 26, in Cardiff, Wales. That event will also have a mass race, currently estimated at 20,000.

For Larsen and his team, tomorrow’s event will present formidable logistical challenges. He will not only have to manage 222 elite athletes, but also provide a safe and fun running experience for the other 30,000 runners. Tomorrow’s event will be the largest-ever one-day running race held in Denmark. The live television coverage will utilize 26 camera positions, and a no-fly zone had to be established over Copenhagen to allow the broadcast helicopters to fly safely above the event.

“It’s a great honor, but we are also in awe of the task ahead of us,” Larsen said.

The championships athletes will be competing for $245,000 in individual and team prize money, plus the change for a $50,000 world record bonus. Individual winners will earn $30,000; the winning teams get $15,000. The weather is forecast to be sunny and cool, about about 9C/49F at race time (12:30).