This weekend will see thousands of runners take to the streets of Prague for the 14th Prague International Marathon. The main 26-mile event will start on Pařížska Street, off Prague's Old Town Square this Sunday morning. Yet again the race will see not only a line-up of the world's top elite athletes, but also competitors from all walks of life and all around the world. I spoke to the President of the Marathon's Organizing Committee, Carlo Capalbo, about the history of the event and how he has seen it grow over the years.
"What inspired me to come to Prague was mainly the beauty of the city. I came here in 1992 and it was completely different from how it is now. It was a land of opportunities; not only from a business point of view but also from a cultural and social point of view. I came here and started to do something else. And then I received a visit from a good friend of mine, an Olympic Marathon gold medallist, Gelindo Bordin, and he suggested that we set up a marathon here. In order to do a marathon you need a beautiful background, and Prague is wonderful. In order to do a marathon you also need a sporting tradition, and a marathon tradition; and this is the home of the great Emil Zatopek. And you need to do a marathon where there isn't already a marathon; Prague didn't have any sort of race, so we thought it was a good idea to organise an event. An event which was not only a top sporting event but which was also, as it were, open to everybody."
Did you encounter any particular difficulties or challenges when you came here, in the first few years, as you were trying to get interest in the marathon and to set it up?
"Well, it was a completely new thing, so of course there were a lot of, well, I would not say difficulties, but yes, there were challenges. It was a challenge to tell people what it was all about. Before this, the only marathon was a group of a hundred people sweating their way from Berkovice to Prague. That was it. There was no concept along the lines of the New York City Marathon or the London Marathon, so at the beginning it was tough. However, I found so much enthusiasm around me that I was really encouraged to carry on, and create a really large event, which we in fact did."
"Well, we started with 980 runners and now we have close to 40,000. One event has grown to 24 events now. There are events built and tailored to every group. So we have a woman's race, a family race, an embassy race, a corporate run. I do believe that our offer, in terms of good free time and quality free time activities, is complete."
What makes the Prague Marathon so special in your opinion? What has helped make it become so popular on the international stage?
"I am maybe a little bit conservative. I do believe that when you have success, the success is the result of hard work. We worked a lot, we believed a lot in our vision, we believed in the challenge of turning a city which, while being extremely beautiful, is relatively small, into a city with a marathon on the same level as in other large cities such as London, Berlin, Paris and New York. So I believe that it is down to hard work and belief, and the fact that we extended the marathon and we built a product not only for professional runners but for, let's say, progressive achievers, too."
I read that the marathon has been listed in the world's top ten marathons; do you think that this is mainly down to the especially beautiful backdrop that the city provides?
"Yes, this was a publication patronised by IAAF about three years ago. Prague International Marathon as an organisation received two silver medals; one for the Alpha Marathon and one for the Marathon. Prague getting on that top ten list seemed almost a miracle, in fact. I do believe of course that Prague is a very beautiful city; it's a very attractive destination. But actually the parameters for the award are more to do with quality of service, service provided to runners, number of runners, entertainment along the course on race day, anti-doping, medical services and so on. We passed all those parameters and that's why Prague has been listed; as not only then one of the most beautiful, but also as one of the most professional marathons in the world."
The main event of the marathon, the 42km, draws in some of the world's top names. Do you think some runners will be using this as a last chance to compete and practice before the Beijing Olympic Games in the summer?
"Not only as a practice, but also as the last chance to get qualified for the Olympics. In fact, I believe Prague is the last chance to get the qualification time required for the Olympic Games. And that is a reason why this year we have our largest field of elite athletes. We have 37 elite competitors invited; each one of them is trying to get under the qualification time for the Olympics."
So you think we will see a record number of elite athletes, but will we also see a record number of competitors overall?
"Oh yes, we are going to have a record number of participants; already now we are very close to our previous highest number of competitors."
Can you finally just say a little bit about what will be going around the event this year in terms if entertainment for spectators, and after the race entertainment for spectators and runners alike?
"This will be a 'Marathon Weekend'. It all starts on Thursday with the Marathon Sport Expo that is going to be held at the Prumyslovy Palac in the historic exhibition centre in Prague. There will be over 70 exhibitors, from leading sports brands and companies, both from the Czech Republic and all over the world. We are expecting thousands and thousands of visitors and we are preparing two full days of entertainment and events; for kids and for normal people - for everyone. There will be a contest, special guests and so on. Our intention is to offer, to all inhabitants of Prague, all the inhabitants of the Czech Republic, and all the tourists, too - we expect 6,000 tourists that weekend - quality, a good time and a lot of fun!"
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