For 21 years the Dubai Marathon has been a staple of the Dubai sporting calendar, with its current route along Jumeirah Beach Road seeing runners finish in the shadow of the city’s iconic Burj al Arab. As one of the world’s fastest marathons, it has attracted elite and amateur athletes from across the globe to Dubai each January in search of personal best times.
The growth of the race has been significant. In 2000, there were 249 people who took part in the marathon, 1,046 in the 10k and 543 in the 4k; at its peak the numbers have been 2,700 for the marathon, 14,888 for the 10k and 7,997 for the 4k. More than 230,000 people have participated over the years and it has coincided with an increased appetite for running among residents.
For Peter Connerton, Race Director of the Dubai Marathon since its inception, it has been particularly heartening to see participant numbers steadily increase.
“The event has changed dramatically and the city has grown so much with the marathon,” Connerton tells Sport Industry Insider. “The challenge at the start was that nobody really understood the value of running, of bringing professional runners here and of creating an event that amateur runners could also participate in.
“The marathon is very special as it is one of the few sports you can, quite literally, run with the best. Over the years you hear people saying things like ‘I passed Haile Gebrselassie’ – yes, he was miles ahead and running in the other direction but these are still great moments. It inspires people to run.”
When the Dubai Marathon first launched, the global running community raised its collective eyebrows, with few believing the race would be able to attract the quality of runners usually reserved for the world marathon majors in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York.
“The Marathon world was shocked when we started. Before long they wanted us to be part of the marathon majors but I don’t think we need to be. We have great times and we have a great race – the Dubai Marathon has been good for the sport.”
Despite offering attractive prize money – Sheikh Mohammed raised the purse to $1m in 2007, plus a $1m bonus for a world record – Connerton believes it is the fast course and prospect of records that really convinces many of the world’s athletes to travel to the Middle East each year.
“Runners can compete in London and London will pay them big appearance money but I don’t believe in paying people to come as once you do that they start to come for the wrong reason. We are now seeing runners being told by their management not to come to Dubai but we believe in offering incentives for people to compete at their best, not just to compete. We want athletes to get on the plane come, take the chance, run and earn.
“They may not get paid appearance fees but they know we have a fast marathon and they can perform well here. They also know they get treated second to none with the fantastic hotels and facilities in Dubai. I remember in 2008, when Haile Gebrselassie stayed at Raffles, he had his own butler and why the hell not. He was king of the road at that time so deserved to be treated like a king. If it’s good enough for Ronaldo or Messi, why not for a running legend.”
Another running legend, Eliud Kipchoge, captivated the world in October with his 1:59:40 marathon time in October’s ‘INEOS 1:59’. But Connerton insists race organisers around the world were less than impressed, feeling Kipchoge’s headline-grabbing time may have actually had a harmful effect on the sport.
“Why did Kipchoge attempt to do an illegal sub-two? He obviously wanted to get attention, and knew that everyone wanted to hear that magic time,” Connerton says. “His genuine world record was fantastic and he has been a brilliant runner but this ‘sub-two’ was a carnival and can’t be considered a real achievement. I don’t think that anyone who works in marathons, except maybe some of the global sports communications companies, sees it as anything other than a PR stunt.
“I always said that the public would be confused, and now they’re confused. They don’t understand the World Athletics rules or IAAF rules and now they think the world record is 1:59 when it obviously isn’t. Recently we had a meeting with sponsors and they were asking if we could have a runner go sub-two in Dubai. That sums it up. It was a circus.
“Still I’d love to see a real attempt at the sub-two, which is more possible now than ever before. I think for athletes the biggest hurdle is believing you can run faster, and they do now.”
Since 2005, Standard Chartered has been title sponsor of the Dubai Marathon – adding to a running portfolio that has also included marathons in Nairobi, Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It was an important moment in the Dubai Marathon’s evolution according to Connerton.
“We had Samsung in 2004 but they were only interested in more banners and flagpoles; they weren’t really interested in the marathon. It is totally different with Standard Chartered and they really understand the power of the race. A bank’s customers can be from any nationality and any demographic and we have such a great cross-section competing.
“Dubai as a city is such a great blend of demographics and with 145 nationalities it really is a perfect fit. I honestly think that sponsors get much better value for their investment in a marathon or major running event when compared to other elite sports tournaments. Dubai Holding have also been fantastic sponsors to work with over the long-term.
“It makes sense because really we are a great advert for Dubai too. When people see 30,000 people running around the city it shows the world we are a safe place and that is great for tourism. Does the DTCM realise that? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, I wonder sometimes!”
After many years of having a marathon monopoly in the UAE, the Dubai Marathon welcomed a new competitor in 2018 with the launch of the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon. However, Connerton believes it will be a while before the race in the capital can match the profile of its Dubai counterpart.
“The more quality and properly run races the better as far as we are concerned. Unfortunately the first Abu Dhabi marathon was run short-– the course wasn’t properly measured. I asked the organisers several times if they had made 100% sure of the race distance but the markings were wrong and it was a bit of a disaster. I think it showed the need to have experts in creating marathons – we have a full-time office because organising a major marathon is a full-time job.
“I’m delighted that this year they got it right, though I’m not surprised because this time our course measurer measured theirs! Now people can run Abu Dhabi and they can run Dubai which is great. All these events, whether marathons or 10km races, they all complement each other.
“We just want to cement this legacy of running in the UAE. Now we see people on the streets wearing the old marathon t-shirts, and that’s thanks to Adidas producing great kit for us. Running is the cheapest and easiest way to get fit and stay healthy, so it’s of massive value to the people of the country and in turn massive value to the sponsors too.”