Airtel Delhi Half Marathon: We had to take a leap of faith, says Procam International's Vivek Singh on hosting race during pandemic

Amit Banerjee
·6-min read

In a year that has witnessed the cancellation or postponement of multiple sporting events, from the Tokyo Olympics to the Wimbledon, bringing sporting action back on television sets has indeed proven a tricky task for organisers. Especially in a nation as hard hit by the virus as India.

The odds were indeed stacked up against Procam International, organisers of distance running events in various cities, when they were drawing up plans for the 2020 edition of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. The national capital, after all, is one of the worst-hit regions in the country with one the highest caseloads in the world, and was recording a soaring number of daily cases along with worsening air quality in the days building up to the event.

Procam International co-founder and joint Managing Director Vivek Singh however, said that they ultimately had to take a "leap of faith" for the event to be successfully pulled off in such testing conditions, which it ultimately did on Sunday, 29 November.

"We had to have this leap of faith. It was a great leap of faith taken by Airtel, taken by the Government of India Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Ministry of External Affairs, Home Affairs, Government of Delhi, Sports Authority of India.

"It is just amazing how everybody, whether it's government, whether it's Delhi Police, Max Healthcare, Le Meridien, Sports Authority of India, everybody rallied around that you know what, let us use ADHM as a symbol of resurgence, a symbol of hope for sports from India, and let us do it in a safe and secure manner. And that's exactly what happened," said Singh.

Besides COVID, there was also the perennial issue of air pollution. Delhi and adjoining states in the northern part of the country witness a sharp drop in air quality in the months between autumn and winter for reasons varying from vehicular and industrial emissions to stubble burning and bursting firecrackers during the festival of Diwali.

Singh, however, believes that the issue of pollution has never been a hindrance as far as the ADHM is concerned, given the measures that are put in place, adding that the pollution factor hardly played into their minds this year.

"This time, I tell you, pollution was not an issue at all! Delhi put up such a beautiful day that day. But more than that, we have demonstrated that pollution can be dealt with. We had our Devic Earth Pure Skies machine installed at two ends of the course, we had the anti-smog machines working over the course.

"So that wasn't an issue, and the athletes€¦ believe me, it's more the media that plays it up than anything else, but pollution wasn't an issue."

The feat of staging the event during a raging pandemic isn't the only reason ADHM 2020 will be remembered though. This year's race witnessed three runners clock less than 59 minutes in the elite men's event €" Ethiopians Amdework Walelegn (0:58:53), Andamlak Belihu (0:58:54) and Ugandan Stephen Kissa (0.58:56) €" with fourth-placed Muktar Edris (0:59:04) matching the course record.

In the women's event, Ethiopia's Yalemzerf Yehualaw (1:04:46) clocked the second-fastest time ever in a half marathon to cross the finish line first among the elite women, beating world marathon champion Ruth Chepngetich and world half marathon record holder Ababel Yeshaneh in the process.

Among the Indian runners, it was Avinash Sable who hogged the limelight and became the toast of the nation. Sable, who has already qualified for the 3000 metres steeplechase event in the Tokyo Olympics, broke the national record by more than three minutes to finish tenth with a time of 1:00:30.

With all the milestones being achieved and records being broken on the course, Singh finds it extremely difficult a task when asked to pick one standout moment from the event.

"You know, I can't choose. Because what Yalemzerf did was something incredible. What three men did to come below 59 is incredible. What Sable did is amazing. Incredible what that boy Avinash Sable has done! So, how do I choose? I think just being there was gooseflesh. Being there in Delhi was something amazing. Forget the finishing, the race starting itself was a moment of, 'My God, what is happening!'"

But all the on-field achievements could never have happened if the athletes themselves decided to play it safe in the confines of their homes rather than travelling during these testing times.

Singh reveals that the athletes did consider their choices for a moment or two, but ultimately chose to repose their faith in the organisers of the World Athletics Gold Label race that ultimately allowed things to be set in motion.

"They had to talk to their families, they had to talk to their managers. But finally, I think the faith in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon that if we are being invited then we will be taken care of€¦ and that's what finally happened.

"They followed their protocols to the hilt. They were isolated from everyone. Finally, I think what worked was the reputation that if we are being invited, if we are being asked to come for a World Athletics Gold Label event, we will be taken care of," said the Procam MD, who credited ADHM for bringing "women out on to the roads" in Delhi and helping raise close to Rs 100 crore in charity and supporting several hundreds of NGOs among its achievements.

While sporting events across the world have largely returned to action after a period of lull last summer, they have had to adapt to the much-discussed 'new normal' €" where athletes and officials are kept in bio-secure zones and rigorously tested and matches are held either behind closed doors or at half or quarter capacity.

In such a scenario, a vaccine for the dreaded virus is being seen by some as hope for sporting events to return to its old glory, with cheering fans in place without the need for a plethora of heath requirements to be set in place.

"A vaccine is of course much-awaited, it will liberate us. There's a lot of stress that any event promoter is going through. We are all on tenterhooks, we're on a wing and a prayer, to be honest, when we organise our events. So a vaccine will liberate us.

"But without the vaccine, we can't wait, we have to move forward. That's what ADHM has shown. It has to move forward in a safe and secure manner. We cannot just sit on and say, "Oh it's a pandemic."

"What ADHM has shown is that it is possible€¦ The way people from across different entities have come together, that support, that coming together is the greatest success for me of ADHM."

Also See: Delhi Half Marathon amid COVID-19 pandemic will set benchmark for other sports to follow, says event ambassador Abhinav Bindra

Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2020: Srinu Bugatha aims to break last year's record as he spearheads elite Indian field

World record holders Brigid Kosgei, Ababel Yeshaneh add to Delhi Half Marathon field

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