Marathon postponement announcement sparks complaints

After it was announced that the 2022 London Marathon will be postponed, Rebecca Cooney finds out why some charities are hitting the wall with the iconic event

London Marathon 2019. Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images
London Marathon 2019. Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the organisers of the world-famous London Marathon announced that the race planned for April 2022 would once again be pushed back to October.

The marathon, founded in 1981, has traditionally taken place in April, but as a result of the pandemic the 2020 event was moved to October before being made into an elite athletes-only event. 

The 2021 race will also take place in October, but charity fundraising runners will be allowed to participate. 

The last full marathon, which took place in April 2019, raised £66.4m for good causes.

With concerns about new variants of the coronavirus and a rise in case numbers over the winter, London Marathon Events concluded that holding the 2022 race in October would give “the best chances of welcoming the world to the streets of London”. 

But the announcement of the plan to postpone the event for a third year was met with anger from charities and fundraisers on Twitter. 

The fundraising consultant Matt Smith was among those who criticised the decision. He says it’s not so much the decision to move the event back that has caused ill feeling, but “a lack of consultation, collaboration or respect for charities partners” in the way it was communicated.

“On the face of it, charities have been given a lot of notice,” he tells Third Sector. “And I completely appreciate that organising mass participation events during this time is incredibly difficult.” 

But Smith adds that dropping the announcement in the middle of the school holidays when many staff may be on leave, and with no prior warning, will have thrown charity fundraising departments into “a mad-dash scramble” to contact and support their runners.

And, he says, this is part of a “repeat pattern of just dropping news out of nowhere”.

In a statement, Hugh Brasher, event director for LME, said the organisation had “emailed all our charity partners shortly before the public announcement to inform them of the news and within one hour of receiving the final permission” to postpone the event. 

But a number of fundraisers on Twitter said they had not been warned of the decision, with one complaining they received “advance notice” 40 minutes after the announcement was made on Twitter, and another saying they had discovered the postponement from Smith’s own tweet about it.

Starting on the back foot 

Carol Robertson, national events manager for Brain Tumour Research says she read the email as soon as it dropped into her inbox – but at exactly the same time people were messaging her having just seen the announcement on Twitter.

“You’re on the back foot and you look foolish with your supporters because they have questions you can’t answer,” she says. 

Runners, many of whom have had their place deferred several times at this point, were expecting to train during the winter months, she says. Many could have chosen to participate in the planned April 2022 event rather than in October 2021 for that very reason.

“The best fundraisers for us are the people who are not regular marathon runners, but who are doing it for that charity and see it as a massive personal challenge,” she says. 

“We had people who didn’t want to train through the summer because they've got hayfever or asthma, or they have seasonal work and are busier through the summer, or they’re looking after kids and can’t take the time for training.”

Around 30 of the charity’s 65 marathon runners who were scheduled to run in 2020 had opted to take their place in April 2022, rather than the coming October. With very real doubts lingering over whether the October 2021 event would go ahead, Robertson said she had put most of her focus on allocating the 2022 places. 

And for the charities themselves, the delay to the marathon date means a hurried reforecasting of budgets – with many organisations beginning their financial year in April and hoping for an early bump in income. 

Brain Tumour Research, which begins its financial year in July, was anticipating two marathons in a single financial year. The postponement will leave a hole of around £200,000 in its income. 

And while Robertson is sympathetic to the argument that reorganising the marathon, which requires shutting a number of London’s busiest roads for several hours, is logistically difficult, she would have liked some indication from LME that a postponement was a possibility much earlier on, even if organisers weren’t able to confirm it until later.

Smith agrees, saying he would have liked to have seen “more openness, more forums charities could come along to and feel more included in decision making” even if ultimately, the end results had been exactly the same.

“If they’d invited everyone to a video meeting, said ‘This is what’s going to happen, here’s how we’ll support you, here’s how you can support your runners’, even a step like that would make such a difference,” he says.

Providing participants with certainty

In his statement, Brasher, LME’s event director, said: “We know Covid-19 has been a bigger issue in the winter months. Therefore moving next year’s event from April to October and providing our participants, would-be participants and charities with certainty is the best thing we can do to support them and ensure the event will go ahead in its full glory next year.”

He added that it is “a very complex process to gain permissions to close 26.2 miles of roads in London, one of the world’s busiest capital cities.” 

Brasher concluded: “We considered delaying the announcement but we felt the benefit of getting the news to everyone as quickly as possible outweighed delaying the announcement.”

Beyond the timing of the announcement, Smith points out that the postponement itself is “not massively respectful of other dates in the diary”. The new October date will clash directly with the Cardiff Half Marathon, one of the biggest mass participation events in Wales, for the second year running.

“Yes, there are only so many weekends in the year, but it seems they throw their weight around without much consideration for the impact,” Smith says.

This sentiment seems to sum up a sense of discontent expressed by a number of fundraisers on Twitter, many of whom professed themselves unsurprised, though disappointed, by the poor handling of the postponement. 

Robertson says: “To me it feels like a huge business machine - they are looking after their sponsors, and you do have to do that, but given that we’re paying up to £1,800 per place surely one of your biggest customers is the charity sector?

“They are happy to take the money from charities, and put themselves forward saying ‘we raise £50m or more for charity’ – but actually, they don’t raise the money. They put on an event and give us the opportunity, but we raise the money.”

And, she says, charities are a major part of what makes the marathon special in the eyes of the British public.

Brain Tumour Research has reduced the number of places it buys for the marathon in recent years, Robertson says, due to concerns about cost and the treatment of the charity. 

The financial cost for many participating charities is due to fall in the coming years, as a result of a recent review of the marathon’s controversial golden bond system for place allocations. This forms one of a series of moves that LME has said will increase the number of charities able to benefit from the event. 

Smith says he believes the power dynamic between LME and its charity partners “has always been quite strange because LME holds all the cards” – the London Marathon is popular among those wanting to support charities, so charities feel unable to pull out. 

But he says, the rise of virtual mass participation events during the pandemic may have given charities alternatives that simply weren’t there before.

“I wouldn’t say it’s going to hurt their business model - the London Marathon will always be there and get attention, but there are other options now that don’t come with the risks and expenditure and are more in charities’ control,” he says. 

“That may well go from a temporary shift to become more permanent, because of the ongoing uncertainty, ongoing treatment and that loss of goodwill.”

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