Top doctors have warned elite runners are taking a major health risk by competing in tomorrow’s New Delhi half-marathon in the midst of a major coronavirus outbreak and soaring air pollution.
Women’s marathon world record-holder Brigid Kosgei from Kenya and Ethiopia’s two-time men’s winner Andamlak Belihu are among the 49 elite athletes running the 21-kilometre (13.1 mile) race, while thousands of amateurs are taking part virtually.
Organisers say the “highest level of safety-standards, with bio-secure zones” have been laid on for the race starting at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
But with New Delhi recording more than 500,000 virus cases, and air quality in the world’s most polluted capital hovering between ‘unhealthy’ and ‘hazardous’, health experts said the athletes should think twice.
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“It will be suicidal for runners to run the race this time. We have such high levels of pollution, we have the risk of coronavirus,” Arvind Kumar, founder trustee of the Lung Care Foundation, told AFP.
“With the presence of this twin threat if people are still running despite knowing everything, well, I have no words to express my anguish.”
“Whether you are an international elite runner or you are a small boy from a village, the damaging potential of a damaging agent remains the same,” said the doctor.
Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the country’s top research body, told AFP that “in an ideal situation” the race should not be run.
“Because of high levels of air pollution, exercising outside in this weather sometimes can lead to aggravation of underlying lung problems,” he said.
“Even if you are an elite runner the air pollution would still affect your lung.”
Normally thousands of amateurs would also take part, but because of the coronavirus they have been told to run their chosen route between Wednesday and Sunday and chart their time on an app.
Delhi has been hit by a winter pollution crisis each year for the past decade when crop-stubble burning from nearby states, cold temperatures and car and industrial pollution produce a toxic mix.
This year, the Indian capital is also a major concern in the battle against the coronavirus. India is the world’s second worst-hit country behind the United States, with about 9.3 million cases.
The city is considering imposing a night-time curfew because of the rising number of cases, according to media reports.
Brigid, who is visiting India for the first time, acknowledged her concerns about travelling for the race.
“The virus has affected most of the sporting events. But it is important for us to take care of ourselves.”
She, however, said she will use will use the race to prepare for next season.
“I have not prepared well for the New Delhi half marathon and I don’t know how things will turn out on Sunday,” the two-time Chicago marathon winner said.
She said she was still recovering after the grueling London marathon in October.
Her 64:49 half marathon personal best ranks her the second fastest in history, only 18 seconds slower than world record holder Yeshaneh.
An equally decorated Ruth Chepngetich will also be going head-to-head with Brigid and Yeshaneh.
Chepngetich is the reigning world marathon champion and has shown her athletics potential for the last three years, with 2017 being the year she made a breakthrough.
In 2017, she clinched titles in four half marathons and won Istanbul Marathon by smashing the Turkish all-comers record, shaving off almost five minutes off the previous course record. A year later in 2018 she improved her own course record to 2:18.
Last year she won the Dubai marathon in a new personal best — a performance that made her one of the pre-race favourites for the World Championships in Doha, last year where she stormed to victory in hot and humid conditions.
Ethiopians Yelamzerf Yehualaw, the second runner-up at the 2020 World Half Marathon Championships and who was second in New Delhi last year will be taking part and Netsanet Gudeta, the former world champion and world record holder for half marathon is also in action.
Evaline Chirchir who made her half marathon debut last year, and improved her personal best early this year will also be hoping to shine.
Chirchir, whose husband Moses Koech paced Kipchoge at the INEOS 1:59 challenge had her first marathon experience when she paced during at the London marathon on October 4.
Brilliant Kipkoech who finished ninth at the world half marathon championships in Gdynia last month and recorded her personal best of 66:56 will also be chasing glory in New Delhi.
Earlier this year she made good progression by running her first sub 70.
Other Kenyan women in the race are Irene Cheptai Dorcas Kimeli.