On 5 January 2020, the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen held the first IAAFWorld Athletics Gold Label road race of the year. After 42 grueling kilometres, 35,071 runners from 41 countries and regions successfully finished the race.
However, the marathon’s race towards sustainability is only just beginning.
Last year, Xiamen Marathon became a competition with a difference—heavy on sustainability, light on single-use plastics and the first international marathon to join United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Clean Seas campaign. The organizers pledged to reduce plastic waste by 60 per cent through a series of measures that included replacing nearly 1 million single-use plastic cups with biodegradable ones made from maize straw. Single-use plastic bottles were also banned, eliminating some 200,000 bottles that would usually be discarded along the route.
Building on the change from last year, in 2020 the organizers scaled up their green ambitions. They moved towards the concept of “circularity,” by reusing and recycling waste from the marathon where possible, and setting up a plastic bank at the end of the racecourse to encourage participants to deposit plastic to be recycled for use at next year’s marathon.
A 17-year-old Xiamen Marathon tradition continued; while elite runners sped along the course, family groups followed behind, picking up litter and mimicking a growing global trend known as “plogging”. Women pushed buggies as their children walked alongside, collecting rubbish and learning a valuable life lesson at the same time.
Billboards and flags with Clean Seas messaging were exhibited throughout the marathon, spreading the message that the world needs to do more to turn the tide on plastic pollution.
Advancing towards carbon neutrality, participants were able to claim saplings on site which will be planted in the North-Western desert in China through the China Green Foundation.
The organizers also made efforts to reduce the marathon’s contribution to air pollution by providing free electric shuttle buses between the race site, the airport and train stations, as well as shared bicycle parking. The start and finish of the race was Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center, accessible via public transport, which attendees were heavily encouraged to use. The guiding cars throughout the race were also electric. A total of 35,071 runners from 41 countries and regions participated in the event, with Ethiopian runners dominate in both men’s and women’s competition in the largest marathon in China. However, the most highlight was arguably the ocean with the Xiamen Marathon setting its own personal best for a sustainable sporting event.
In October 2019, Xiamen Marathon was awarded the 2019 Green Award by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races, the member organization representing more than 460 of the world’s leading distance races. Xiamen Marathon became the first Chinese running event to win the Award, in recognition of excellence in environmental practice through its efforts in fighting climate change, reducing waste and raising environmental awareness.In this year’s race, Xiamen Marathon advocates Car-free Day on the race day. The start and finish of the race is Xiamen International Convention and Exhibition Center accessible by many public transport options which are promoted by the race. Free shuttle buses are provided to runners by the race while shared bicycle parking is provided.
The race’s collaboration with the Clean Seas campaign was of great significance, said Hua Yun, from the Xiamen Marathon Committee, adding that there is still a long way to go to make the whole race pollution-free. The committee will continue to support the Clean Seas campaign and explore all possible options to reduce, reuse and recycle marathon waste.
“We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously,” Yun said. “We have taken steps towards becoming a sustainable and green sport but there is still lots of potential to explore. We are delighted that all of our environmental work has been aligned with this international organization. Partners are increasingly joining the fight against pollution.”
UNEP’s Clean Seas campaign was set up in 2017 to galvanize mass social change against marine litter. Since then, 60 countries around the world have joined the campaign, committing to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics, and to move towards circularity.
According to UNEP’s Head of Public Advocacy and Communication, Atif Butt, “The Clean Seas campaign advocates for the fact that everybody can and should play a part in combatting the issue of marine litter. Individuals can change their consumption behaviour while governments and big businesses can improve their practices and policies. The Xiamen Marathon, as part of this larger mix, highlights the importance of sport and sporting events also having a part to play in combatting pollution. Clean Seas invites other sporting bodies to follow suit.”