It’s one thing when race directors have a turf war, but as events in Toronto now show, when a sponsor takes over a race at the expense of the race director, runners of all kinds, charities and even the sponsor stand to lose.
The Canada Running Series (CRS) has run the Toronto 10K for 26 years under various sponsors. The current course that runs downhill on Yonge Street has been used for 14 years, with the title sponsor being Sporting Life. This huge event has grown from 1,200 participants in 1997 to 15,000 in 2011. It’s popular with elites and serious amateurs and was won by former two-time marathon world record holder Khalid Kannouchi in 1996 in 29:38. The run is also wildly popular with charity and fitness runners. Camp Oochigeas, a camp north of Toronto for kids with cancer received $1.3 million in total from the race last year. But all that is now being put at risk by the title sponsor.
In 2010, the CRS — which also organizes the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon — and the GoodLife Toronto Marathon responded to the popular beef against two fall marathons shutting down major streets of the city. The city and the two marathons reached an agreeement that the GoodLife Toronto Marathon move to the first weekend in May, starting 2012, and that the CRS wouldn’t put on another event within two weeks of that date. The Sporting Life 10K, a CRS event, would have to be run two weeks before or after that, according to the agreement. Sporting Life, however, wasn’t on board, and felt that late April was too early and prone to bad weather and, less convincingly, that two weeks later, runners would be suffering donor fatigue from early season races.
Sporting Life applied for a May 13 permit and offered new terms, which saw a drastic decrease in revenues for CRS, purportedly to ensure more funds for Camp Oochigeas. Camp Oochigeas is on board, allying itself with Sporting Life. But it’s a risky situation, since last year, when the CRS looked after the race, $1.3 million was raised — $15,000 came from entry fees, the rest from pledges. Sporting Life now has a different race director on board. The CRS is also applying for a permit to hold a Yonge Street 10K on April 22 and is still willing to work with Camp Oochigeas.
Meanwhile, Sporting Life has applied for another permit, also seeking the April 22 date in direct competition with the CRS (it has promised to cancel the May 13 event, if it gets the April permit).
Although reactionary politicians, talk-show hosts and newspapers like to carp about road closures in the city, this is a red herring. All three races could be approved since it’s a bureaucratic, not political process. If you can prove that you meet the criteria for the permit, one city councillor said, you get the permit. Three races in four weeks may annoy city drivers, but it’s certainly possible, although if it happens, supported charities will likely suffer.
I have run the race several times, along with most of the other big races in the city and have to say that as a runner, I’m very lucky to live in a city with so many first-rate events. Although sponsors and charities are a vital part of the mix, the people we principally have to thank for this bounty of fine races are the race directors themselves. Without the knowledge, expertise and commitment that comes from a true professional, they won’t attract the gamut of runners, support the goal of raising money for charity, inspire a positive attitude towards fitness and encourage the growth of the sport at the elite level. Hopefully this will be the last case we hear of where race directors, whose job is delivering the commitment, vision and concern for the safety of the runners, are compromised by upstart sponsors.