2020 has been a year like no other in living memory. All over the world we have witnessed an invisible threat to our lives and our livelihoods. Some of us have lost friends and loved ones, and our freedoms have necessarily been restricted in order to protect the most vulnerable. The world, it seems, has closed down, disrupting our routines and denying us real, physical, social interaction. Driven by an unrelenting news cycle many of us have become scared, fearful and anxious.
In my lifetime, I honestly can’t remember a more turbulent period of societal unrest or disharmony. In part, this is clearly due to the impact of and response to Covid-19 (Coronavirus), but fractures and dislocations in society are no doubt also the result of a huge number of difficult, pre-existing, and ongoing issues; from environmental damage, political unrest, devastating bushfires in Australia and more recently the tragic events in the US which have sparked a worldwide conversation on discrimination and injustice.
Having been brought up in Apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, I am only too aware of the inequality and injustices that many people are subject to. I try to live a good life, to be moral in my thoughts, and to be ethical in my actions. I brought these principles to parkrun - specifically a strong conviction that physical activity should be for everyone. And I am extremely proud of the way the team has embraced these values and drawn upon them to further what I started, and that they remain committed to continuing them as we look to the future.
I’m also proud that parkrun has become a sanctuary for millions of people from all sorts of backgrounds over the past 16 years. But it didn’t start out that way. At that first event in October 2004, I was one of 18 white, middle-class people, in a Royal Park in an affluent suburb of London who participated in what we now know as parkrun. Back then, this wasn’t particularly unusual. It’s an uncomfortable truth but the running sector has long struggled with a lack of diversity in participation.
Sadly, we also know that the Black, Asian and minority ethnic community participating in running are under-represented, (as well as in physical activity more generally), whilst being at greater risk of ill health and lower health outcomes, exacerbating health inequalities in the general population. We’ve long felt it is these communities that potentially have the most to gain from participating in events such as parkrun.
Prior to the suspension due to Coronavirus, parkrun events were taking place in over 2,000 locations across 22 countries. Nearly 7 million people around the world have registered with us and (in normal times) 350,000 people walk, jog, run and volunteer at their local community event every weekend.
Personally, the big numbers have never been a motivation for me. When I realised early on that parkrun had the power to change lives, I made it our mission first to establish a parkrun event in every community that wanted one, and then, around 2015, (and even more ambitiously) to create a healthier, happier planet. We also made a commitment that parkrun would always be free, for everyone, forever.
At that time, and to address the fact that we could no longer rely on word of mouth to reach those who had the most to gain from regular, free, inclusive physical activity we became more interventionist.
We developed a strategy that would see parkrun find the most simple, scalable and successful solutions to encourage more marginalised and excluded groups to participate in parkrun. We recognised that we couldn’t do it all, that we could only make a difference in the context of physical activity and community events, but that we could make a start, that every barcode represented a person, and that every person should be considered equal.
That strategy guided our work developing events in areas of deprivation across the UK and elsewhere. It provided the framework for establishing events on the custodial estate, and enabled our partnership with the Royal College of GPs in the UK, which sees GP practices collaborate with local parkrun events and signpost patients and public health staff to parkrun.
Nearly 16 years on from that first Saturday morning in Bushy Park, I remain immensely proud of our work and of what parkrun has become.
As I continue to reflect on the events of this year, and in particular of the last week or two, I recognise that for all of our collective successes and achievements, there will always be more that we can do. We will continue to challenge ourselves on our fundamental values, which remain at the heart of our organisation and define the parkrun family.
Whilst we all face uncertain times and witness deep divisions in society, I will always believe that people are good, and that every new day provides an opportunity to celebrate our differences. I know parkrun is not the only answer, but it will always be a force for good and can be part of the solution.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the parkrun family that we resolutely remain for everyone. And particularly, that we stand by the disadvantaged, the marginalised, and the excluded.
We hear you, we see you, and we welcome you.
Free, for everyone, forever.