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Mass Participation Events – Beyond the Finishing Line

May 18 2023

Mass participation events are about more than beating a personal best or finishing on the podium. As these events have evolved, so too have the organisers’ approach to sustainability. In this feature, we discuss how such events can have an impact on environmental, commercial and social issues long after the barricades and flags have been packed away.

Mass Participation Events – Beyond the Finishing Line

When discussing sustainability, it is easy to focus solely on the environmental impact of an event. However, while this is becoming a more significant factor in the organisation of large events – take the recent London Marathon, for example – the social responsibility of an event can tunnel much deeper. 

Chris Robb has over 35 years of experience in the mass participation events sector, and is the Founder and Chief Executive of Mass Participation World (MPW), a platform that aims to educate and support through the four pillars of consulting, advocacy, research and education. 

Mass Participation World runs an annual conference featuring international speakers, while also working alongside organisations such as World Athletics on educational webinars and seminars. 

Robb tells Global Sustainable Sport that there is a real opportunity for organisers of mass participation events to go beyond hosting an event, and have a continued positive social impact within the various communities involved. 

“The question I’ve been posing for a while is: ‘Are we organising races or are we building health and wellbeing communities?’,” says Robb. 

The MPW founder explains that a survey conducted by a business in Athens asked several thousand participants their primary reason for taking part in the event, to which 50% responded that their main reason was health and wellbeing. 

Robb says that this is therefore an opportunity for mass participation events to capitalise, adding: “What if we were to embrace that community and say, ‘hey let’s take you on a year-round journey here… what are your health and wellbeing objectives?’. The events then become part of the ongoing journey rather than just a destination.”

Mass Participation World's Chris Robb

Mass Participation World's Chris Robb

“The question I’ve been posing for a while is: ‘Are we organising races or are we building health and wellbeing communities?’” Mass Participation World Chief Executive and Founder Chris Robb

Health and wellbeing

When hundreds or thousands of runners, cyclists, triathletes or swimmers jostle for position at the start line, it is easy to see why many assume that once the swathe of athletes have passed, there is little legacy left in the host destination.

However, Robb says there is an opportunity for organisers to make a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of communities – and particularly those that may be underprivileged or underrepresented. 

“This industry has an enormous opportunity to embrace and make it easier for underprivileged communities or underrepresented communities to get involved in mass participation events,” he says. 

Robb singles out the Chicago Marathon’s introduction of the Chicago 13.1 (or half marathon distance) on the US city’s West side as one such example. The second annual event is set to take place in a few weeks’ time on June 4, and will “weave through vibrant and culturally diverse neighbourhoods”. 

Not only did the organisers take this event to one of Chicago’s less gentrified areas, but they also introduced wellness initiatives to embrace groups and inspire them to move through running or walking programmes. 

“It doesn’t have to be about racing,” says Robb. “It’s lining up to be part of a community, to have something that is habit-forming and to have people supporting you.

“Statistics shows that there’s probably as little as 10-15% of people who line up on a start line because they want to beat other people, who want to run their personal best or win an award. The vast majority of people are getting there for other reasons, whether that is to be part of a community, running for charity, or health and wellbeing.”

At a previous MPW conference, the ability of mass participation event organisers to interact with communities was discussed, with a panel highlighting the need for events to be more than merely a sporadic “tourist stop” once a year. 

“There’s this opportunity to really go into those communities and understand how we can help them,” adds Robb. 

Mass participation events also represent a relatively accessible way to embrace all communities, according to Robb. “Mass participation and sport generally are a microcosm of society,” he explains. “What is happening in broader society is often reflected in sport and mass participation.”

Robb adds that mass participation is an amazing platform upon which to create more diversity and integration, and to appeal to potential participants from all walks of life. 

Chicago Marathon

Chicago Marathon

Environmental sustainability

The clue is in the name – mass participation events require a large number of people to be able to run. Event organisation involves significant logistical and infrastructural challenges that will inevitably have an environmental impact, whether that is waste disposed on the route or through the arrival of international participants.

Many event organisers are incorporating environmental sustainability into their plans, with London Marathon Events (LME) – the organisers of the London Marathon – going one step further and aiming to become net zero in terms of carbon emissions across its own operations by next year. By 2025, it wants to remove more carbon than it emits across all event operations. 

This year’s event, which took place last month, saw LME introduce a £26 (€30/$32) carbon levy paid by international participants to fund carbon removal and offset projects; New Balance finisher t-shirts made from 100% recycled polyester; reusable mile markers created in 2022 from event waste and recycled ocean plastic; and the use of 100% electric lead vehicles. More than 50% of logistics vehicles used in event set-up and breakdown were also electric. 

Participants even had the choice to plant a tree over receiving a finisher’s t-shirt to help reduce the event’s carbon footprint. 

Robb also highlights the efforts of the organisers behind the Chicago Marathon, which alongside the London Marathon and Limelight Sports he describes as “torchbearers” of environmental sustainability within the mass participation industry. 

“They recycle paper cups, turn them into compost and they go into communities and plant gardens,” Robb explains. “They take the heat sheets which they give away for participants on a cold day and they turn those into planks, and then they turn those into park benches for communities.” 

Creating health and wellbeing communities

Creating health and wellbeing communities

Economic sustainability

A further aspect of mass participation events and sustainability is, of course, economic sustainability.

Robb explains that the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck in 2020 and continued to disrupt much of the 2021 calendar, had an enormous impact on the mass participation industry with some events and suppliers going out of business.

Once again, the idea of embracing the health and wellbeing community as opposed to acting like a one-off event is just one strategy that the industry can use to futureproof itself, according to Robb.

“I think we have a real issue in terms of commercial sustainability within the industry,” he explains. “So much of this industry was impacted during COVID. Some Mass Participation events almost disappeared and that’s because in many cases the business model is fundamentally flawed.

“And I think there’s this opportunity to embrace this concept of health and wellbeing communities that creates year-round engagement.”

Robb feels that the industry does not do a great job of highlighting the ecosystem that it creates, and uses an example from his early days in Singapore.

“When I first went to Singapore, I went there with [financial services company] JP Morgan as a client to develop their JP Morgan Corporate Challenge. There weren’t enough barricades in Singapore to deliver that event, so we had to truck barricades in from Malaysia.

“And fast forward to now: there are a couple of multi-million-dollar barricade companies in Singapore that have manufactured barricades and hired them out, and not to just mass participation events, as there is now a calendar of multiple events every weekend.”

Other companies that benefit from the hosting of mass participation events have also cropped up, including those that manufacture the medals, health and safety services, as well as the physiotherapists, dieticians, chiropractors and more. They create jobs and significant economic impact.

“So, it’s creating a whole ecosystem of its own, let alone the event companies that have sprung up and the sponsors that have been brought in, and the impact that has been made on charities,” adds Robb.

"I think that there’s a real opportunity for mass participation to address some of the challenges of the world that we live in today, to make a real positive impact." Mass Participation World Chief Executive and Founder Chris Robb

After the race

Robb concludes: “I think that there’s a real opportunity for mass participation to address some of the challenges of the world that we live in today, to make a real positive impact. And I think there’s real opportunity to focus not only on environmental sustainability, but on all of the other elements of sustainability.

“A mass participation event goes way beyond just the participants with mass stakeholder and community engagement. It’s very different from a football match, or cricket match or rugby match.

“We need, depending on the size of the event, hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. We need the city to buy into it. We need the government authorities to close the roads. And all of that has a commercial sustainability element. We could have 10 years of an event and the city could decide to pull the permit and then all of a sudden, the event is unsustainable: it’s gone.

“Events would have to look at a new level of commercial sustainability, around how to replace those volunteers, ensure a safe event for all participants, close the roads, and communicate with all stakeholders. If you’re not sustainable in terms of the community that you’re engaged with, your event can become almost unsustainable overnight.”

Chris Robb is the founder and chief executive of Mass Participation World, and has over 35 years of experience within the industry. In 2016, he published the book Mass Participation Sports Events.

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