Sporting life

The Jerusalem marathon
February 22, 2012
Runners pass through Zion Gate as they leave the Old City during the first International Jerusalem Marathon

A popular marathon is a sign that a city has come of age. From London to Tokyo, for one day each year, the modern city suspends normal business and is overrun, literally, by the people. In the name of sport, cities rise above their preoccupied selves.

Mayor Nir Barkat launched the International Jerusalem Marathon in 2011, proudly announcing that “Jerusalem joined the list of leading international cities that host a full marathon.” True enough, but Jerusalem is not like any other modern city. It remains one of the central disputes between Israel and the Palestinians, and Barkat is loud among those asserting Israel’s right to the whole of the city, although Palestinians claim the eastern part as the capital of a future state. So far the controversy has not prevented the marathon attracting runners from around the world.

The race is newly affiliated to the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (Aims), a trade association whose main function as explained by Hugh Jones, its secretary, is to ensure that races are correctly measured. This marker of sporting legitimacy may not satisfy those in the city uneasy with the idea of the marathon. Left-wing council members objected to the route, and human rights organisations lobbied the sponsor Adidas to keep the race within the less controversial boundaries of pre-1967 west Jerusalem. The route was altered in January, although the course still dips into east Jerusalem at one point.

On 16th March 10,000 people from 43 countries will take part in events including a half-marathon, a 10km race and a fun run. About 2,000 runners will tackle the full marathon, and stamina permitting, they’ll enjoy views of the Dome of the Rock, the Judean desert and a far-off glint of the Dead Sea (next-day massages available.) A spokesperson for the Jerusalem Development Authority emphasises that the race is open to all, but can offer no figure for the number of Palestinians likely to start. To the runners themselves, the disputes may fade as the 42km pass by. The Jerusalem hills may help this process, especially at 30km where the road begins its rise to Mount Scopus—the route climbs 100 metres from the Old City.

The hills are a problem for those looking to break records. A young marathon like Jerusalem can grow quickly by attracting elite athletes, but appearance fees and prize money may struggle to compensate for Naismith’s rule, calculated by Scottish hill-walker William Naismith: every 100 metres of elevation equates to an added kilometre of walking. A similar principle applies to marathons. Last year’s winner of the Jerusalem men’s marathon was Kenyan Raymond Kipkoech, in 2:26:44. His personal best, set on the flatter and faster course of Berlin, is 20 minutes faster.

Speed is a critical consideration in an Olympic year—men aiming to qualify for London 2012 must run 2h 15m by July. Elite runners will favour marathons like Berlin, run by Paula Radcliffe in 2:23:46 last September, well below the qualifying time for women (2h 31m). This may leave Jerusalem short of showcase runners.

For all the difficulties and controversy, the Jerusalem marathon is still likely to attract more contestants than the parallel race, also in its second year, in the Gaza Strip. This marathon is organised by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and last year 1,400 Palestinians, mostly schoolchildren, ran the distance in relays. Seven runners completed the full marathon and the winner was the Gazan Nader al-Masri (2:42:47), who competed for Palestine in the Beijing Olympics.

This year the second Gaza marathon is scheduled for 1st March, and UNWRA has invited allcomers to register—though contestants have to secure their own entry. The Gaza marathon is also investigating membership of Aims, and Hugh Jones wishes the project well. “Running is a great unifying force,” he says, “and Gaza can help capture attention and promote running throughout the world.”

That still sounds like wishful thinking. In Gaza, a coincidence of geography binds running to the intractable politics. The Gaza Strip is 42km long, almost the exact marathon distance.