This Sunday, more than 30,000 runners will set off from Blackheath for an experience of agony and achievement that will last a bare couple of hours for the elite but a good deal longer for most. Prominent among them, as usual, will be the thousands who are doing it for charity, some of them in chicken costumes or wetsuits. The London Marathon has become a great national institution, and without it many charities would be a good deal poorer and could even disappear.
This year, however, a bit of a cloud has blown over the event. The marathon is so successful and so popular that it has become extremely difficult for charities that don't already have places to get any. The frustration has become so intense that, as Third Sector revealed last week, a black market has developed. Although it's unclear how widespread the practice is, some charities have been prepared to pay more than twice the face value to acquire 'golden bonds', each of which grants them five places in the event.
At the same time, more than 40 charities have teamed up to make an approach to the organisers of the marathon in the hope that the system can be opened up a bit.
The response of the race organisers has been to assert that no changes are necessary and to reaffirm their faith in the present system. They argue the charities that bought into the bond system when it started were taking a risk and demonstrating a faith in the event that should now be rewarded. Taking places away from those who already have bonds would be unfair and, in the case of some smaller charities, could put their survival at risk. There is some force in these arguments: the marathon cannot, after all, expand to accommodate all who want to take part, and 'first come, first served' is usually a good principle.
But so is compromise. Times have changed since the marathon's early days, and surely it would be a good idea to at least investigate the possibility of doing things differently. The advocates of change are not suggesting the whole system should be scrapped and tiny charities sacrificed. They argue that some relatively minor adjustments could meet the aspirations of excluded organisations without doing serious financial harm to those that, in some cases, have hundreds of places. In being so dismissive of the idea of change, the organisers are running the risk of alienating parts of the charity sector with which the marathon phenomenon is closely bound up.