How the State took over the Malta marathon

Using a charity, and the name of a much-loved doctor who died in a tragic traffic accident, as a means of papering over a blatant political decision is appalling

The Marathon Organising Committee cancelled the 2022 race after a disagreement with Transport Malta
The Marathon Organising Committee cancelled the 2022 race after a disagreement with Transport Malta

There are very few things which unite us in this country but the Malta Marathon, a fixture on the sports scene for the last 37 years, is surely one of them.

Anyone who has ever taken part will know that the running community cuts across all spectrums, as runners share their joy in a sport which you can only appreciate once you have trained for months on end and finally cross that finish line. No matter whether you are among the elite striving for a personal best, or struggling to make it towards the end during what feels like that never-ending last kilometre along the Gzira strand to the ferries, the sheer satisfaction is comparable to few other sports.

You are given your medal, stumble around in a daze for a few minutes as you realise that you actually did it and ride on a natural high which can last for hours, or even the whole day. The aches and pains and disciplined training (especially on those days when you really didn’t feel like running) have all been worth it.

Although it seems like another lifetime, I was part of that running community for a few years and after I stopped running and switched to other hobbies, I still continued to be a cheering spectator, supporting my other half, as well as our friends who have done the marathon regularly. So I can safely say that I know that ‘world’ – which is why I was flabbergasted to learn that it had been cancelled, not because of bad weather like in 2019 or because of Covid in 2020, but because Transport Malta would not approve the route.

Why not? What was so very different this year? Traffic arrangements to close roads for this major event have always involved a lot of planning and logistics and while drivers invariably grumble for those few hours, it has always worked relatively smoothly.  On Tuesday, the organisers issued this statement:

“The Malta Marathon Organising Committee regrets to announce that the 2022 Malta Marathon is cancelled. Following today’s meeting, Transport Malta reiterated that the Malta Marathon must adopt the TM proposed route in lieu of the Malta Marathon route, the same route that has been authorised by the same authority for many years, including the last edition. Whilst we fully respect Transport Malta’s authority, we cannot adopt a route that has been declared as unacceptable by Mater Dei’s Emergency Department, the Malta Red Cross and the Malta Traffic Police due to safety concerns. Due to time constraints, the MMOC once again asked TM to approve its route for a last time and undertook to discuss a new route for subsequent years. The MMOC also stated that it would start the event 1 hour earlier to mitigate any traffic concerns that TM may have. This request was rejected. The main objection to the MMOC route was the closure of arterial roads to traffic after 1030. In view of this, the MMOC today proposed a way of having all participants out of the arterial routes by 1030 whilst still using the MMOC route. However, this was also refused. Another factor forcing the cancellation of the Malta Marathon is the Mandatory Standard for mass sports events (Covid), which although updated last Friday, still precludes the Malta Marathon from being held. As already stated, application and transport fees paid to the MMOC will be refunded in due course and in the shortest time possible.”

Understandably, this was a huge blow to all those who have been looking forward to the event after a two-year absence.  What was worse was that TM’s objections made zero sense after having the same route with no issue during all these years.  The next development was even more of a blow.  On the following day, we were told that in lieu of the Malta Marathon, Transport Malta and Sport Malta had joined forces to hold what they called the TRAN/SPORT MALTA CHARITY MARATHON, claiming it would be held in aid of a charity, Puttinu Cares, in memory of the late Victor Calvagna.

There have been quite a few cynical moves by this administration lately, but this latest Ian Borg manoeuvre really took the cake. Using a charity, and the name of a much-loved doctor who died in a tragic traffic accident, as a means of papering over a blatant political decision is appalling. The furious public backlash however, was probably something not even the always über confident Minster Borg was expecting.

By the end of the day it must have filtered through that this lame attempt at propaganda to gain Brownie points was not going to wash, not even with runners who were desperate to run. Many were calling for a boycott of the event because they could see through the whole thing and called it out for what it was:  the state had effectively elbowed out the original organisers who had always put the event together thanks to sponsorships from private industry.  The announcement that two government entities would be organising the marathon themselves was not only bizarre, but unacceptable.

Since the Malta Marathon route had not been approved, what would the new route be? What was the real difference between the two? How on earth could Sport Malta/Transport Malta have the expertise and experience to organise a marathon in two weeks? And did the traffic issue suddenly disappear? Questions were rife all over social media but no answers were forthcoming.

In comments to the press, Malta Marathon’s organiser Joseph Micallef, who has 30 years experience in this sector, said, “The comments and reactions I saw once I went into Facebook surprised me, even the comments on the Minister’s post himself, they all seem to be against the decision. It also hardly seems like a coincidence to me that for the first time since 2009 the permit for the same identical route taken was met with this much resistance, to the point that the marathon was indeed called off. I’ve never had a problem with getting the go-ahead, but for some reason, this changed this year,” he said.

Things happened very fast between Thursday and Friday afternoon. Puttinu Cares suddenly realised that it had been thrust, unwillingly, smack in the middle of what was turning into a political controversy and issued a diplomatic statement saying, “we believe that with the experience of the organisers and the support from the government, a solution can be found.   Sports should remain sports and there shouldn’t be any other conflicting issues.  In this situation, donations are not a priority. Puttinu Cares will be happier that both parties unite, work together and that this situation is settled in an amicable manner so that the athlete will enjoy sports.”

Meanwhile, as disgruntled runners were being faced with the choice of completely boycotting the event and foregoing their months of training, or caving in and running in the government event, another running group entered the fray. The Running Malta Solidarity Run 2022 event was announced for the same day, 6 March, offering runners a chance to participate, for free.

Then, suddenly, there was a complete turnaround. On the Sport Malta page it was announced with much fanfare that Joe Micallef, Athletics Malta, Running Malta and the Birkirkara St Joseph Sports Club - Triathlon Section had accepted the invitation to all work together.  The name of the marathon had now become the SportMalta Marathon (the words Transport Malta and Charity were dropped).  The sight of a very uncomfortable looking Joe Micallef fist-bumping a smiling Mark Cutajar (CEO of Sport Malta) made many wonder what compromises had to be made for this damage control and at what cost.

For the running community this is, obviously, unbelievably good news. But for those of us who might not be so willing to take this magic resolution of the issue at face value, the burning questions remain.  What went on behind the scenes prior to the above photo op? Which route is now being used and how were the issues of traffic congestion, bus stops and the closure of arterial roads suddenly waved aside? Have the COVID protocols also disappeared? Why did the MMOC have to be sidelined, only for one member to be roped back in again? What does this mean for the organisation of large scale sports events in the future – will one only be given the necessary permits if government entities get the credit, and put their stamp on it?  The public has a right to know the facts: what was this whole thing really all about?

Those who work in the cultural sector have pointed out that this is exactly what has happened in their field - artistic events created and produced by the private sector are at a huge disadvantage because their meagre budgets have to compete with state-sponsored events like the Malta Film Awards which received a cool €2 million. I wonder how much money was thrown at the Malta Eurovision Song Contest, which judging by the comments after the first show on Thursday, was of very poor quality.  The word on the street is that these state-sponsored events are a way of justifying the salaries of all those who have been employed in the public sector over the last few years. 

If sports are going down the same route, where everything has to be organised with the SportMalta name on it, otherwise permits will be withheld, then politicians should not get offended at accusations of ‘state capture’ and ‘communism’.

I thought we had got rid of this ‘80s mentality when the State had to have its finger in the pie of every sector, controlling everything, and never allowing private industry to breathe and flourish.

It’s not exactly a good look for any government to be accused of being dictatorial, let alone one facing an election.