Athens, the Marathon capital of the world for good
By George Georgakopoulos
Paco Borao, the man who restored Athens as the Marathon capital of the world with the establishment at the Olympic Sports Center of the headquarters of the International Association of Marathon and Long-Distance Races (AIMS) that he presides over, tells Kathimerini a few weeks after his reelection at the helm of the global Marathon movement that the seat of his association is here to stay for ever.
The mechanical engineer from Zaragoza, Spain, who also heads the organizing committee of the Valencia Marathon, expresses his admiration for the authentic race in Athens and for the sporting tradition of Greece, and announces he will run the Authentic Marathon this November for the first time in his life, at the age of 68 years.
He goes on to offer his proposals about the professional orientation passed on to runners and for the measures against grassroots doping. He also offers his explanation for the blossoming of the running movement amidst the financial crisis and warns against the extreme commercialization of the Marathon.
Have you ever run the Authentic Marathon in Athens?
No, but I will try it this year! In my life I have run 18 Marathons, the last one being in 1992, so it’s a full 22 years since then. I have always been saying that any runner should once in his life run the Athens Marathon. Last year in Áthens I started telling myself that I have run many Marathons but not the Authentic race. ‘This is the Marathon you should have run once in your life’, I told myself. So, I thought ‘let’s do it, at least let’s prepare for it.’ It’s high time I practised what I preach, so it is going to be this year. After all I have a lot of respect for the Marathon and the people here.
What can the Athens Marathon do to improve its profile further?
The people who are in charge of the Marathon Race here have in the last few years done a very good job. I know this race had for many years, like other ones, been a little bit stagnant, because – like it or not – any project requires some marketing. It needs a lot of support from the authorities. The race is already improving year after year and there is an effort to retain its quality accommodating the numbers of participants, as we are reaching the saturation point.
Athens must be special to you in many ways. Besides being the birthplace of the Marathon, it is also the city where you were first elected at the chair of AIMS. Then you brought the headquarters here. What are your feelings about this city?
Yes, I was also elected here on the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, in 2010. I love this country, I love this area, and there is also this parallelism between Athens, Greece and Valencia, Spain because we both look at the Mediterranean, we have the same light, we have a similar climate, the people I work with have similar objectives, which are to enhance the Marathon and its values, etc.
Bringing the AIMS headquarters to a road called Spiros Louis appeared highly symbolic. But how long are you planning to keep the AIMS offices here for?
The wish is for ever. The Marathon Race is the only Olympic discipline based upon a legend. This is the Marathon Battle, the Marathon Beach, Pheidippides, the first Modern Olympic Games, the Marathon Race from Marathon to Athens etc., so for me the only natural place to have the AIMS headquarters is Athens, that’s my view. Having the offices on Spiros Louis Road was a coincidence; we were looking at several options, but that fits our image.
Could sporting events help Greece exit its financial crisis?
Such events bring quality tourism. People come with their families, they spend money, they clean everything, and everything is fine. When they go home they talk to everyone about Greece etc. Thousands of people come to your country, to see your city, to pay money, and they go back. Of course it depends on how you approach it, but it can be supported by the public administration. It is good business.
Greece has the fame of a country tied to sport. You had the Ancient Olympics, two modern Olympics, several world championships in various sports, you have a good national team in soccer, so for a small country like you are, with 10 million, you have a very good history of sport. But turning this into a financial benefit requires a one-by-one approach for each sport and every tournament, not a general approach.
What are your priorities for your second term at the chair of AIMS?
We want to consolidate our headquarters in Greece and our organization that has long been operating like a group of friends from the day AIMS was founded back in 1982. The growth of the last 10 years, from 28 members at the start to almost 400 today, requires more professionalism. We need to enlarge the human resources to offer greater stability, for good management etc. The Best Marathon Runner Gala is also a big project, which we started last year in Athens and we want to make it a regular institution, capping the Marathon season the world over, hosted always in Athens. This November we will have the second such event.
What are your biggest concerns regarding the Marathons and long-distance races?
We should be able to keep in our races the philosophy of the sport. We have to be careful when something becomes a business, when money gets to be the main rule for organizing such events. Partners, such as sponsors, managers, coaches, athletes etc, must be convinced that this is a sport competition that has its rules that must be followed. A lot of new people are getting into the game to exploit it, while often the race directors are not very powerful. We must keep our philosophy in place and prevent having the economic exploitation before the competition.
Another thing is that we miss the parallel education of our professional athletes. We help them run, but we do not offer them any other skills for them to cultivate ahead of their retirement from sports. We should prepare them for the time after, such as for becoming coaches, physiotherapists, working with universities etc.
We must also be careful and issue medical advice to people regarding doping. It’s not a major problem yet in running, but there are two kinds of doping: One is for the elite athletes, but there is also another form of doping that nobody takes care of. We should educate the runners in our popular races against this low form of doping, that is still doping. Instead of running to improve their health, people using banned substances such as those circulating at gymnasiums are damaging their health. Just because we do not talk about it does not mean it does not exist. Grassroots doping is still doping and we are already involved in a common project with the IAAF that will start during this year so as to tell people why the use of banned substances is dangerous.
We want to prevent people who are already banned for doping from having access to our races, but we also want to supply educational advice to ordinary, amateur runners as a preventive measure. That will start from AIMS conferences, seminars, the symposium in Athens, to get to all races and all runners.
In the last few years the running movement has soared around the world. What is your vision about the future of running?
When we started out we could never imagine what running is like today. The crisis has increased the number of people running. One of the effects of the crisis is that people have lost their confidence in authorities taking care of them in case of a problem. They have lost their faith in institutions. The crisis has brought each one of us in front of our problems. To face this, to find a solution for ourselves, we need to be strong mentally as well as physically. Globalization has put ourselves in the same position as people who were too far away. They are now competitors. Your mind and body must be ready to face new challenges. This is why more people are coming to running. Running is hard, boring, it does not end, you never rest, so it is a kind of education for life. You build your mind and you build your body. There is nothing in life that gives you so much for so little! The growth of running is unbelievable.
How is your cooperation with the IOC?
We do not have a direct relationship, it is only through IAAF that we communicate with IOC. What we’re trying to influence the IOC about is to have all Marathons run in a straight line, from one point to another, and not running around the same area, as in the Berlin Marathon. For me such a thing would be the loss of the essence of the Marathon in the Olympic Games, this would be another conquest of the business over the sport, so we have to resist that form of commercialization, that is out of focus.