There are so many interesting topics to discuss about the uses Chinese people and companies are making of the expanding Internet structure and technological innovations, but for this post I want to focus on something very close to my heart: running.
According to the Chinese Athletics Association, last year 5 million people took part in 1,102 running events in China, almost 20 times as in 2014. In one single day in April there were 40 races! And yet, a lot of people are left out of events: 100,000 runners applied for the 2017 edition of the Beijing Marathon, for which there were only 30,000 slots available – although that did not stop all rejected runners.
Why have so many people in China suddenly caught the running bug? There seem to be three main reasons: the expansion of the Chinese middle class, government encouragement and a desire for status on social media platforms.
For the government, this running boom is positive in many ways: it improves overall population health, stimulates domestic tourism and keeps the money flowing: despite the fact that running doesn’t cost much, the Chinese are very willing to put their RMB to use in gear and events.
That joyous spending has been made possible by the economic boom China has experienced in the last years and the expansion of its middle class. More people have some disposable income, time for leisure and a desire for a healthier life, both physical and mental. Running is perceived to be a pastime of the wealthy, so many people feel that it is something they have to take part in.
And how do you join the marathoner status if not through social media? Neil Connor, a writer for The Telegraph, reported finding “100 million-plus views of photos and posts bearing the hash tag #Wuxi #Marathon on Weibo on the day of this year’s race ”. That desire to impress on social media dispate one’s actual fitness level can have undesirable consequences: although more than 1.2 million people took part in full and half-marathons in China in 2017, half a million of them didn’t make it to the end of the race. That same year, in a marathon in Qingyuan, more than 12,000 out of 20,000 runners received mid-race medical treatment.
Not only thousands of people are putting their health at risk, but a smaller group is actively cheating the system by using other runner’s bibs or taking shortcuts to run shorter distances. Last year’s Shenzen half marathon made the headlines for shameful numbers: 258 runners were caught by traffic cameras and photographers taking shortcuts or otherwise breaking the rules, and at least 18 were identified wearing fake bibs. As we can see, the technology that allows for a carefully curated athletic self also allows for the surveillance that can destroy it. Now the organizers of the Shenzen half and the Beijing Marathon have announced plans to use facial recognition to identify cheaters and ban them permanently. Those measures are seen as ways to not only eliminate cheaters from future events but, more profoundly, a way to “respect the marathon and respect sporting spirit”.
I finish this post with a humble homage to my very own personal cheater, whom I met during this year’s Hong Kong Marathon. She showed up in the racecourse less than half a kilometre to the finish line, wearing casual clothing, with her hair down and not a memory of sweat on her body. She crossed the finish line, got a medal and left laughing. I hope tech will someday avenge me.