This article first appeared on ChinaFile’s multimedia section.
In 2011, a college student named Obed Tiony took a break from his studies in Economics at Shanghai University to go for a run. He registered for a half marathon in the nearby city of Suzhou, ran the race, and came in second. Tiony had arrived one month earlier from his home in Eldoret, Kenya, the hometown of many of his country’s best athletes. The race gave out cash prizes and Obed pocketed 10,000 RMB (roughly U.S.$1,500).
In the years since, China has seen a surge of enthusiasm for marathons and other running events. According to the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA), which is the national sport association administering athletics, in 2017 Chinese cities hosted more than 1,000 large-scale road and cross-country races. While China still has far fewer competitive runners than the U.S. (where almost 17 million people finished road races in 2016), the number of Chinese racers has risen dramatically, from 400,000 in 2011 to 4.98 million in 2017—a phenomenon that Chinese media call a “marathon fever.” Tiony, now a graduate student in International Finance, couldn’t enter every race himself, but three years after his initial run he found he could still enjoy a share of the marathon fever’s spoils.
Sports in the People’s Republic of China have long been the domain of the Chinese state, which views the prowess of its athletes as emblematic of the strength of the nation, and of the party that rules it. But after a decades-long focus on Olympic glory, in 2009 the Chinese government began to more actively promote sports for ordinary people. The State Council issued “National Fitness Regulations” encouraging all citizens to participate in physical activity, and made August 8 a “National Fitness Day.” Growing numbers of middle class Chinese people had time to exercise, and many of them began to run. But China still hasn’t abandoned its zest for record-breaking and international competition; the rise in recreational running has only created more opportunities for organizers of Chinese races to measure themselves against the world.
This is where Tiony, who goes by the Chinese name Ou Chen, comes in. Cities across China (not unlike cities elsewhere) want the prestige and lucrative endorsements that good finish times bring. To help burnish their races’ reputations, they need to recruit fast runners—and Kenya dominates the sport. So, Tiony works as an agent—or as he puts it, “the Black Broker”—for some 300 runners from Kenya and its neighbor Ethiopia. Tiony’s is a profession that exists everywhere in the world where Kenyan runners want to compete for lucrative prizes, but China’s road-racing market, with its explosive, sudden growth, is, Tiony says, an especially strong draw for runners who hope to make a living winning prize money.
Many runners from Africa, especially those who are not yet the most successful, find it to be a lot harder to get visas to compete in races in the U.S. or Europe than they do in China, where restrictions are looser and some runners just come on tourist visas (which is technically not allowed, but many do without issue). This, says Tiony, presents opportunities for less-established African runners who might be ineligible for races elsewhere. The main hurdles in China are logistical and linguistic, and Tiony says that many runners he knows mistrust Chinese agents and prefer to work with someone from home. They pay him a cut of their winnings. Tiony says Chinese agents often take money from race organizers looking to recruit foreign faces to their lesser-known cities. “The cities, they hold races because other cities do,” he said, “So it’ll look like this society is really healthy, but it isn’t.”
Still, it might be getting healthier. Filmmaker Guo Rongfei heard about Tiony while researching China’s booming marathon market. “All of sudden,” she says, “lots of my friends are running.”