London Marathon chief executive Nick Bitel discusses how the event has become the pinnacle of distance running and outlines how the Middle East’s marathons could potentially improve their offering.
As one of the ‘Big Five’ global marathons, London sits alongside Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York City as an iconic race that takes pride of place on many a runner’s wish list.
Established in 1981, the London Marathon has since grown to remarkable heights and in 2019, 400,000 runners applied to participate in the race – with just 40,000 of those taking their place on the start line. The overwhelming oversubscription exemplifies the London Marathon’s popularity and is a statistic of which long-time chief executive Nick Bitel is particularly proud.
“With so many applying we know there will be a lot of disappointed people,” Bitel tells Sport Industry Insider. “But it also tells us that we are doing something right. Every year we set out to make the London Marathon the greatest experience it can be; thankfully the number of people applying suggests we are achieving this.”
“We take great pride in the course and the striking mix between elite runners, charity, fun, personal achievement. It resonates with people in a way in which I think that some purely elite events struggle with sometimes. It was once described as the great suburban Everest and it’s still got that challenge element that people love.”
What really makes London stand out – quite literally – from other marathons, is the dramatic array of fancy dress costumes on the start line. The London Marathon is inextricably linked to charity fundraising, with millions of pounds raised each year for good causes. It has become a key facet of the race’s personality.
“Charity is a vital part of our DNA,” Bitel explains.” There is a real sense of fun and if you look at the start line in a lot of city centre races, you don’t see what you see in London – the colour, the parade of costumes.
“This really helps spectator numbers, both on television and in person. Most people running for charity have an average of 40 people who sponsor them, which means 40 people invested in the fortunes of that person. There are hundreds of thousands of people who feel that they have a stake in the event and that is very special indeed.
“We are proud of our connection to charity. Sport can do a great deal for society – improving physical and mental health, personal development, and societal cohesion. This is what the charities that participate in the London Marathon are trying to do. There’s an inbuilt synergy between sport and charity because of the outcomes that sport can help achieve.”
The close links to charity played a major role in the London Marathon’s decision to switch title sponsors in 2009. A 13-year relationship with Flora came to an end, with Virgin Money becoming only the sixth company to take naming rights for the race since its inception.
“There comes a time in a sponsorship life where you come to a natural end point and that was the case with Flora – it was very much a mutual decision,” Bitel says. “Now we have a brilliant partner in Virgin Money and their Virgin Money Giving online donations platform has made a real difference to the amount of money raised by charity around the race.
“Virgin are a really respected and well-loved brand and I know that Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia views their sponsorship of the London Marathon as a great success. As we do.
“We work hard on showing value to our sponsors in terms of return on investment , screen value and other attributes. But at the heart of it brands are just looking to be associated with the brand of the London Marathon and its positive attributes: fitness, fun, charity, excellence. It’s not just eyeballs on a banner.”
Unsurprisingly for an event of its magnitude, the London Marathon has plenty of interest from potential sponsors each year. But, aptly for an endurance race, there is a major emphasis placed on partnerships that go the distance.
“We want long term relationships and that is how we’ve operated for a long time now. New Balance joined us last year but before that we’d been with Adidas for 14 years. TNT FedEx have been there for even longer and Renault are another very long-term supporter of the London Marathon.
“I think that in itself is a testament to the success that we’re able to deliver to our sponsors. It is about shared values. You can see it with other races too – John Hancock has been connected to the Boston Marathon for 34 years!”
As well as overseeing the London Marathon, Bitel is Chair of Sport England and also sits on the board of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It means that ideas around legacy are never far from his mind, with
“Firstly, there is a physical legacy because we’re a charity and we’ve distributed more than £70 million to recreational facilities in the UK. That’s a beautiful legacy. We have swimming pools and sport halls and playing fields – facilities which exist because of the London Marathon. That’s a physical legacy.
“The soft legacy is the change in mindset. Endurance running was seen as pretty fringe in 1981 and if you’d looked at who was running those days, it was massively skewed towards skinny white males in dodgy shorts. I think London Marathon has helped to democratise running. It has made running for everybody.
“Today we see that running is the number one physical activity in the UK with over 3.2 million people regularly running. There are undoubtedly still under-represented communities that could be better serviced and that is all part of what we are working towards.”
Last year saw the UAE launch the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon to sit alongside the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, a stalwart event on the Middle East sporting calendar having existed since 2000. Both races have some way to go to reach the London Marathon’s impressive participant and spectator numbers but Bitel believes there is plenty of reason for optimism.
“The London Marathon’s success has not been achieved totally by design and it is difficult to manufacture all of these elements that we talk about. However, charity is something that a lot of races are working hard on, that sense of community is really important.
“The one thing that I’ve seen in some of the Middle East races is sometimes they don’t feel particularly local. They are very attractive to the expat communities but to what extent are they really part of the DNA of a place? Until you engage with local communities and have them taking part and supporting the race, it’s very difficult to build an identity for an event. They have to have the support of local people.”
As one of the world’s leading marathons, London welcomes organisers from far and wide, with its Race Directors Program offering advice to those looking to improve their events. However, the program also gives the London Marathon’s leadership team a chance to be introspective.
“We are generous with our time and behind the scenes, so they can see what we do. Somewhere like Tokyo is a relatively new event and I know they went around all of the World Marathon Majors when they launched to learn from them and hit the ground running. Now that they are established, we see people going to them they’ve got things to teach people now.
“Importantly you can sometimes get a great idea from a very small race. There is no monopoly on good ideas for marathons.”