Parkrun is one of the UK's big grassroots sport success stories. Launched as a free weekly 5k event in 2004 by a handful of regular runners at Richmond’s Bushy Park, today there are more than 450 events across the country and millions of members worldwide. And while it’s a great way to burn off any residual Christmas calories, it’s not just about pounding the pavements, it’s an important community event too. You turn up, put in your best time and catch up with friends for a cup of tea in the park café afterwards. It’s simple, free and has a fiercely loyal, diverse membership base that’s turned the founding team into minor running celebrities.
It’s a great organisation, but being a lovely concept didn’t stop Parkrun running headfirst into a spat with Runner’s World at the end of last year when the magazine published an article exploring why cheaters cheat. For reasons of practicality (and good sense), one of the magazine’s journalists decided to explore what goes through the mind of cheaters at his local Parkrun event and write up how he did it, how he felt and what happened next.
I’ll let you decide how you feel about the final article yourself, but the reaction from Parkrun was immediate and angry. Not only did Parkrun denounce the article, the journalist and cheaters in general, it sent its statement to its four million members – many of whom are unlikely to have read the article. It didn’t stop there either with Parkrun’s founding team quick to take to social media to announce they were boycotting the magazine.
It’ll come as little surprise to hear that this led to a stream of online outrage directed at Runner’s World and the journalist, both of which backed down over the article and published apologies of their own. This seems an extraordinary place to end up; the article wasn’t a criticism of Parkrun, its people or processes – it was an exploration of an increasingly serious issue in professionally organised racing. As a result, the response from Parkrun seemed disproportionate and harmful for a magazine that just wanted to publish a fun-but-insightful article.
And this matters. Like any organisation, Parkrun is right to want to protect its reputation, but it also needs to understand that the way it responds also carries responsibility and influence. Perhaps in this case, the leadership needed to think a little more carefully about the weight its words carried before hitting send.