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Marathon Man

By Stephen Brookes
Manager Magazine, March 1996

Yangon, Myanmar:  December 21, 11:30 pm. The phone rings, and I fumble for it in the dark. It's my official press "handler" in Yangon. He doesn't come to his office until 9:30 p.m., so we always talk in the dead of night. "They want to see you at City Hall tomorrow morning," he says. "Go to Conference Room Four at 10:30." I write it down. "Who am I meeting with?" I ask him. "I don't know," he says, in the deadpan style he likes to affect. "Somebody who speaks English. I think."

                                                                                   Stephen Brookes
December 22, 10:00 am. I put on a tie and go down to City Hall, a sprawling concrete edifice next to Sule Pagoda in the heart of town. The armed guards at the entrance examine me, muttering, as I repeat slowly and hypnotically, "Conference Room Four. Conference Room Four." Guns are shifted on shoulders. Looks are exchanged. I am wearing a suit, which is good, but have a beard, which is bad. And I am foreign, which could go either way.

Suddenly a tiny woman, about fifty, pushes her way through the guards, takes me by the arm and leads me upstairs, chattering away in perfect English about the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC. She deposits me in front of Conference Room Four, waves happily and bustles away.

I have no idea who she is.

December 22, 10:20 am.  I know why I'm here, of course -- I'd requested an interview for the Yangon Mayor's International Marathon, set to take place the next day. There have been marathon banners all over town for weeks announcing the support of Canon, Heinekin, Daewoo and a dozen other international sponsors, as well as official thirty-foot billboards showing hundreds of people, heads held high, running together in harmony toward a perfect future. Except for their inexplicable underwater skin tone, they look a lot like the big national unity billboards that decorate the city.

Someone motions me into Conference Room Four, and I take a seat at a massive U-shaped table with forty chairs around it, a microphone in front of each one. A technician goes around the room, pressing the "talk" button on each of the forty microphones and saying "testing one two three four." A worrying sign. Will I be interviewing the entire city government?

Four people come in and silently take seats directly behind me. I stare straight ahead and don't move. The clock ticks. Another assistant comes in and gives me a pink, engraved invitation to the marathon ceremonies, an entry form, a bright blue car pass, a stack of postcards and four plastic marathon key-chains. I examine the gifts attentively, while the people behind me whisper and make little scratching noises with their pens.  

December 22, 10:30 am. Exactly on time, two officials from the Yangon City Development Committee rush into the room, all smiles and solicitude. Lt. Cdr. Tin Maung Myint (Ret.) takes a seat on one side of me and and U San Tun sits on the other, greeting me and asking after the health of my family and issuing instructions to their aides, all at the same time. Coffee is brought, tea is poured, pastries are produced, documents are summoned.

The two are outdoing each other to be helpful to me. U San Tun takes my blue parking pass and passes it to an assistant, giving me a red one in return. "VIP," he says, with a confiding look. Not to be outdone, Lt Cdr Tin Maung Myint reaches into his briefcase, pulls out more marathon key-chains and sets them down in front of me. Now I have seven of them, in a small pile.

So with a YCDC official at each ear, the interview begins. Starting at 6:00 the next morning, I'm told, fifty thousand people from age five to 90 will be running in six different events. There's the actual 26-mile marathon, and a special wheel-chair marathon. But in order to make the event as broadly democratic as possible there's also a "mini-marathon" of only 13 miles, a "micro-marathon" of a relatively quick six miles, and then a "sub-micro-marathon," which is so short that the entire marathon notion itself begins to dissolve.

But then they mention an even more esoteric event: the "artistes" marathon. I look sideways at Lt Cdr Tin Maung Myint and say, "artistes?" Yes, he assures me. Seven hundred and thirteen film stars, singers and dancers will be running, all together in a bunch, with their own starting point and everything. He shows me on the map.

... myanmar is opening up to the world
— but there's a certain amount of ambivalence, too ...

But when I press for more information, the YCDC officials are already on a new tack. Forget the artistes;  the thing that is making this marathon special -- and the reason I'm being given the Conference Room Four Treatment, keychains included -- is that this is the first International Mayor's Marathon.

Now, this is important, because Myanmar is opening up full steam ahead to the world. The government is getting more involved in international organizations, new hotels are sprouting all over the country to cater to tourists, and foreign investors are prowling the country for opportunities.

But there's still a certain amount of ambivalence, too. The government regularly castigates its main political opponent (never mentioned by name, but you know who you are) for being the lackey of foreign "neo-colonialists." Political relations with Washington are less than chummy. And Myanmar's ties with its next-door neighbor, Thailand, are rarely trouble-free; in fact, the border between the two countries has been closed for much of the year over one dispute or another.

On the tourism, business and sports fronts, however, Myanmar is laying out the red carpet. So, while stressing the huge number of local runners participating in the Mayor's Marathon, the YCDC officials are also quick to stress -- and stress and stress and stress and stress -- that fifteen runners from Kenya, Japan, Thailand, Canada, Brazil, and France will be lacing their Nikes on and lining up at the starting point tomorrow morning.

The runner from Kenya seems to be generating particular excitement. His name is Timothy Moni, and he came in first in a couple of big races in Thailand. "He won $6,000 in Pattaya this year," says U San Tun, reading from a newspaper clipping, and we all nod, impressed. Hot stuff, this Moni! A real pro! U San Tun reads a little further. "Then he ran a marathon in Greece, and he came in 19th." He frowns. We all frown a little, thinking: nineteenth? -- maybe not such hot stuff, after all.

So we pass quickly from Timothy Moni to the prizes. There are a lot of them, from $20,000 in prize money down to cars, washing machines, radios and watches. And even if all you do is finish the race, you stand a chance of winning -- all finishers are entered into a lottery, where some of the biggest prizes are given away.

And most of the prizes, the YCDC officials tell me, have been contributed by the sponsoring companies -- there are Suzuki motorcycles, Toyota Corollas and Sony televisions. The French company Evian is also sponsoring the Marathon, and has donated -- you guessed it -- thousands of bottles of its finest water. "For the foreign runners," explains one of the officials.

The Korean company Daewoo, adds U San Tun, has donated several Tico cars. I had ridden in a Tico recently, and make a rather lame joke that the winner will probably be able to run faster than the car. Everyone frowns at my stupid remark. Daewoo is an important investor in Myanmar.

December 22, 11:20 am. The YCDC officials need to go meet with a delegation from Egypt, so I fold up my notebook, gather up my key chains and head for the door. As U San Tun escorts me out, I almost trip over a toothless old man with a cane. U San Tun becomes very excited. "He's eighty-five!" he says, and the man nods enthusiastically. "He wants to run in the race tomorrow!" I nod back at him, unable to respond -- I've stuffed one of the breakfast pastries in my mouth at the last minute.


December 23, 4:30 am. Red VIP pass stuck jauntily to the windshield, I drive back downtown through the empty pre-dawn streets, a cup of coffee in one hand. It's cool and pleasant, perfect marathon-watching weather. On Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, I pass a gaggle of Evian Girls in Evian tee-shirts, already manning the Evian tables, ready to refresh the runners.

As I round Sule Pagoda, the guards wave me through the barbed wire barricades, under the klieg lights and into City Hall once again. This being the Mayor's marathon, it's going to start, naturally, right in front of City Hall.

U San Tun meets me at the door. "I'm going to go down and talk to some of the runners," I tell him; there are 50,000 people lined up in the side streets off to the east, waiting for the 6:00 a.m. start. Many of them have been there all night, waiting for the race to begin.  But U San Tun looks at me like I'm crazy. "The foreigners are in here!" he says impatiently, leading me upstairs to Conference Room Four where, sure enough, half a dozen sleepy, middle-aged, non-Myanmar men are milling around in running shorts.

marathon_horizontal.jpg And in their center is Timothy Moni, the Kenyan runner, the top gun. He's small and tense, too tense to talk, too tense to do anything but go run the pants off 50,000 Myanmars. He looks pleadingly at me when I ask him how long he's been in Yangon, how he likes the country, where he'd run his last marathon -- probing journalistic stuff like that. He whispers when he talks, and won't look at me. He seems terrified.

So I leave him alone and go talk to a young Singaporean guy who I'd seen sitting at a table earlier with one of the officials, going over the route in what seemed to be a pretty elementary way.

"You're just learning the route now?" I ask him. "Yeah," he laughs, sounding slightly desperate. "There's no way I'm running the whole 26 miles, so they're showing me the "micro" route." It turns out that he works for Evian, and has been strongly urged to put on his running shoes and show the company flag.

He's urbane and sardonic, and accepting his fate with pretty good humor. All he really wants to do, it seems, is avoid getting hopelessly lost in some far-off, Evian-less suburb of Yangon. I tell him about the "sub-micro" option, and he brightens for a second, but it's too late. He holds up his right hand to show me. On it is written, in ink: "1. Left. 2. Right at big sign. 3. Next right. 4. Left, two miles. 5. Left."

The rest of the foreign contingent seems to be made up of a couple of Japanese dentists in town for a teaching conference, a Chinese woman in a business suit and high heels, and a muscular, crew-cut European who is marching back and forth across the room. "This is one of the French runners," says U San Tun, trying to introduce us. "German, actually," corrects the German, and marches away.

December 23, 5:45 am. I take a picture of the Singaporean with the course directions written on his hand, wish him luck, and head downstairs. They won't let me into the starting area, so I have to climb a metal fence and peer over. It's an impressive sight. Under the klieg lights, hundreds of orange-suited marathon officials are sitting shoulder to shoulder across Maha Bandoola Street. It's hard to tell, but they seem to be about twelve deep, forming a human barricade to prevent over-enthusiastic runners from jumping the gun.

At the interview yesterday, the YCDC officials had made sure that I wouldn't be bringing a video camera. "If they see the video lights, they get excited and want to start running," said one, "and we can't control them. It's like a riot."

And sure enough, in the dim light behind the orange human wall, the runners could just be seen -- a dark surging ocean of them, waiting for the start, emitting a low ominous rumble. But suddenly flashbulbs begin to go off behind me, and I turn around. The Mayor himself is making his entrance, resplendent in a pale blue Marathon jumpsuit, flanked by the foreign runners and the official Myanmar media. As the Mayor smiles and shakes everyone's hand for the photo op, the German stretches one last time, does sort of a Lipizzaner trot down the parking lot, and disappears into the starting gate, the other foreigners shambling along behind.

December 23, 6:00 am. I squeeze past the guard and onto Maha Bandoola Street, as the Mayor gives a brief speech (theme: "Myanmar Sports -- the World to Conquer"). He fires his starting gun in the air and the race is off. It's instant pandemonium. The orange-suited officials scatter in panic as the runners surge forward with a roar, stampeding across the start line and off into the night.

Thousands of people pass, whole armies of them, in wave after wave as they're let out from the side streets. Most of them are barefoot; some are running in thin socks. A few have old tennis shoes on, and some are dressed literally in rags. Some are limping. Many have, for some reason, colored ribbons tied to their legs, just above the knee. A huge number of them seem to be kids.

Suddenly, a couple of thousand people spill over onto the sidewalk, scattering the spectators. I make a run for the metal fence and press myself into it, feeling like one of those maniacs who run with the bulls in Pamplona. It's crazy -- as they're pouring by at full tilt, some of the runners notice me and decide to practice their English. "Hello, where are you going?" they ask me and then rush on by, as I hold the bars of the fence in a death grip. Where am I going?

Finally the tide ebbs, and I notice a bunch of people across the street. They're separated into three groups, and as I carefully make my way over I see that some are wearing red hats, others blue, and others green.

"We're the artistes!" explains U Jolly Swe, a jaunty 66-year-old "comedian," as he describes himself. He's wearing a blue hat, which he says are for the actors, while the red hats are for musicians and the green hats for the dancers. Immediately a loud debate ensues, as other people in differently colored hats assure me that the red hats are the dancers, not the musicians, and so on and so forth, until suddenly the video lights are turned on and the Mayor fires a starting gun, and the colored hats scatter in all directions.


December 23, 6:30 am.  Suddenly, it's quiet again. The last runners have gone and the sun is starting to come up, so I walk over to the Strand Hotel -- that expensively renovated icon of colonialism -- and have a $3 cup of coffee in the cafe. I wonder about the frightened Kenyan, the humorless German, the sardonic Singaporean, the 50,000 barefoot Myanmars, the clowning artistes in their colored hats -- all running pell-mell together in the early dawn, nothing at all like the official posters.

It seems more, in fact, like a mirror of Myanmar's actual opening to the world: enthusiastic but awkward, sometimes chaotic, sometimes contrived, an improvised play where the actors aren't quite sure of their roles. The marathon is hardly a race at all, I suddenly think -- it's a strange kind of theater. 

December 23, 1:30 pm.  Afternoon. The race is over, the prizes have been awarded, the audience has gone home, and Timothy Moni -- true to his role -- has bagged the $5,000 grand prize. No one seems surprised. No one seems especially happy, either, even though the internationalism of the Yangon marathon has now been indisputably affirmed, and Myanmar brought another step closer to the outside world.

"It bothers a lot of people," says the Myanmar friend I'm having lunch with. "You saw all those people running barefoot? You're an American, you think they were running for fun. To keep in shape."

I look up as my friend, acting out his own role in the play, pauses dramatically.

"They were running," he says quietly, "for the prizes."


Posted on Saturday, April 22, 2006 at 04:39PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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