149.7 Metres – The Difference Between Good and Bad Publicity

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Last week, a friend in London sent me a recent BBC article “Great Scottish Run half-marathon course found to be short”.

It highlighted the complexities of delivering successful mass participation events, especially in the heart of major cities, as well as the power of social media and wearables to keep organisers accountable.

The organiser of the event, The Great Run Company, is one of the most experienced in the business, having been around for over 30 years and delivered events for over 4 million participants. So if such an industry veteran can experience an issue, there are clearly potential lessons for others.

The event, held back in October, was won in what at first appeared to be a course and Scottish record time by Olympian, Callum Hawkins, and no doubt hundreds of runners also thought they had set personal and season’s bests.

Questions were posed soon after the race by participants who indicated that their Garmins and other devices showed the course to be about 200m short. Chatter soon started on the likes of Facebook and Strava and the organisers committed to re-measure the course – something that would have had to happen anyway due to a record being broken. The re-measure was only able to be done in late January.

The miscalculation of the distance was down to human error, with two problems identified. A small section of the prescribed route was not followed correctly on race day and in addition, when the course measure was conducted, the roads were unclosed due to essential utilities works. It is easier for measurers to take the exact line athletes will run when the roads are closed.

Measurement of road courses for running events is a complex process that has evolved significantly over the past 30 years. With such huge bonuses at stake these days for breaking of records, it is an even more critical component.

I was lucky enough to be involved in the route measure for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Marathon. A police escort helped close roads, often ridden in the wrong direction. One of the highlights was cycling diagonally across Sydney Harbour Bridge devoid of vehicles apart from a long line of stationary traffic on the lane closest to the Opera House. We were greeted with a mixture of cheers and jeers and no doubt a good few people were left bewildered. The measure could clearly have not been accomplished without the support of a number of city agencies.

So what are some of the lessons that we can take from the events in Scotland:

  • Collaboration is key: for the safety of the measurers and to ensure accuracy, the support of city agencies to close roads or provide police escorts makes a challenging task far easier
  • Identify every possible way to eradicate the risk of human error: participants going the wrong way is almost always the result of human error. Look at ways to reduce this both during course set-up and whilst the race is on
  • Monitor your social media channels
  • Have a clear crisis communication plan that outlines how you will communicate clearly and in a timely manner with your stakeholders. This is likely to include sponsors, host city and of course participants
  • Try to resolve and clarify the issue/s as fast as possible
  • Accept responsibility and apologise, as happened with the Great Scottish Run.
  • Appoint a certified course measurer and provide them with the appropriate information and environment to conduct the measure
  • Do a thorough debrief and identify how processes and procedures can be improved

Ultimately in this day and age, there is nowhere to hide as problems are aired and scrutinised in real time on social media. Robust and detailed event planning delivers many benefits including the opportunity to minimise the risk of negative publicity.

I believe that there are huge opportunities for our industry to collaborate and share best practices globally. It is one of the reasons why I started the Mass Participation Asia conference – to bring the industry together and learn from each other. If the operational aspects of such events is relevant to your line of work, do come along to the next edition this 3 and 4 April in Bangkok. Details can be found here: http://massparticipationasia.com/

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