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Running in style

Running in style
Published: Feb 22, 2014

A new bug for running points toward a new politics of lifestyle

Benny Hari Juliawan

Running reflects new social and political trends Dyan Indriyani

On 27 October 2013 Jakarta held its first ever marathon. Around 10,000 runners, Indonesian and foreign, participated in six different categories, from full marathon to the maratoonz for kids. With a route that included the city’s famous landmarks such as the National Monument, the Cathedral, Istiqlal Mosque and Old Batavia, the event was a sporting highlight of the year, putting Jakarta on the world marathon map. At least, such is the wish of the popular Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’, as he is usually known. He desires to bring Jakarta up on the same plane with other big cities in the world like New York, London, and Tokyo, whose annual marathons draw tens of thousands participants from all over the world. According to the Jakarta Tourism Agency head, the marathon saw a 15 per cent increase in hotel occupancy rates that weekend, making all hotels in Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin fully booked. With all these achievements, it is small wonder that the organisers have pledged to make this an annual event.

Kenyan Wiliam Chebor and Ethiopian Muly Seyfu, may have won the elite men and women categories respectively, but the marathon story was told by the thousands of amateurs who took to the street very early that morning. Running has become a big lifestyle sport in recent years in Indonesia, especially in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung, and Denpasar. In 2013 alone, 32 running events were registered for the greater Jakarta area, mostly over five and ten kilometre distances. They drew crowds of five to ten thousand participants each. In many cases, organisers had to close registration before the scheduled date to avoid oversubscription. This new craze for running might seem like an unlikely place to find politics, but sport is deeply poiltical in Indonesia.

Famous faces

Among the sweaty crowds taking part in some of these runs were household names in Indonesian entertainment, business, and even politics. A number of TV soap stars, singers, and talk show hosts confess to being converts to the sport. Sandiaga Uno, owner of Mandala airlines and Saratoga Capital, has gone as far as establishing a running club called IndoRunners whose membership is now over 2000. With youthful looks, the title of one of the richest men in Indonesia, and several world-famous marathons under his belt, he has become an effective campaigner for the sport.

Lately, a new poster boy of the sport has emerged from none less than the first family. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s eldest son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, whom many see as his dad’s protégé, rushes to the running scene with pomp and circumstance. Pictures of him crossing the finish line at various running events alongside his running buddies in the Garuda Finishers club have invaded the airwaves and chatty social media sites.

But it’s not always easy for famous faces to hijack the sport for their own interests. Agus’s running, for example, went sour after an incident in the Adidas King of Road 17K event in Serpong, Tangerang on 29 September 2013. He and his entourage came almost four hours late to the venue, when the organisers were already gearing down. He asked them to stay put and wait for him while he ran the course to the finish well after other runners had cleared the scene, packed up and gone home. His photograph with a finisher’s medal hung from his neck soon went online on Twitter but before long Rico Jonah Iskak, one of the organisers, took to the same social media to tell his account of the event. Rico’s version soon went viral. But Agus had the last word. It turned out that he, an army major, had taken part in another running event, the Jakarta Military District Anniversary 10K, on that fateful morning. In fact he boasted on Twitter, ‘We did it! In the spirit of the armed forces sixty eighth anniversay, we succeeded in completing 10K in the National Monument and 17K in Bumi Serpong Damai.’

What’s all the fuss?

If you have been to Jakarta, all this enthusiasm about running might sound rather absurd. Only ten per cent of the city, less than 3000 hectares, is open green space, and fewer than 15 parks are fit for running, in a city of 10 million people. The legendary Jakarta traffic jams, not to mention air pollution, are enough to deter most runners from venturing onto paved roads. Air-conditioned shopping malls fare much better in the struggle for space and shopping is a favourite pastime here. So where does this all come from?

Perhaps history offers us a clue. Running competitions made headlines back in late 1980s to early 1990s and they were always organised by one person: Mohammad (Bob) Hasan. This timber tycoon was a close ally of Suharto and also the chairperson of the country’s amateur athletic federation (PASI). This is not so odd as it might seem: at that time the peak leadership positions in every official organisation were in the hands of Suharto’s people. With his deep pockets and Suharto’s blessings, Hasan organised running events in Denpasar, Borobudur and Jakarta. The stratospheric prizes on offer – some to the tune of US$500,000 - attracted elite runners to what they otherwise might have thought of as an odd place in the tropics.

The extravagance aside, these Suharto-era events in many ways were exercises in controlled mobilisation in public space. Public events that gathered thousands of people in the streets normally provoked a heavy-handed response by the military regime. Under the regime’s watchful eye, the street was a space of discipline and fear, where unlicensed activities were considered the manifestation of criminality. For example, thousands of workers of PT Gajah Tunggal and workers in Medan who took to the street in 1991 and 1994 respectively to demand wage rises were met with a swift and ruthless crackdown. While the success of the running events landed the timber tycoon at the helm of the Asian Athletics Association in 1991 and a prestigious seat in the International Olympic Committee in 1994, labour leaders were sent to jail for their role. Bob Hasan’s political ascendancy culminated with his appointment as Minister of Trade and Industry in the dying days of the New Order in 1998. After the regime collapsed, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison in 2000.

Democratisation of sport

The present running bug is different from the previous in two meaningful respects. Firstly, the bug is not controlled by one institution, let alone one person. Now we see the Bank Mandiri Run, the University of Indonesia Run, the Armed Forces Anniversay Run: in short, all manner of institutions are jumping on the running bandwagon. Secondly, running events take place in the urban street that has been turned into a stage of popular mobilisation since Suharto fell. For the past 15 years, the space of the street has been reconstituted as a legitimate locus of political activities. Popular demonstrations involving hundreds and even thousands of people take place almost every day, but the street is open not only for the overtly political. Hobby clubs and sporting events want to have a slice of the new public space as well.

The embodiment of this enthusiasm can be found each Sunday morning. Since 2007, Sunday mornings in Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin – the very commercial heart of Jakarta - have become a scene of joggers, cyclists, aerobics enthusiasts and marching groups, all jostling for space along the eight kilometre avenue. When it began, the car free day was only held once a month. Being popular with the masses, the city administration soon made it a weekly event.

At face value, running events do not seem political at all, but on closer inspection we find political jargon mixed in with all the sporting talk. Just look, for example, at taglines such as ‘Nike #HijackJakarta’ obviously referring to the demand for a more runner-friendly city, or the ‘Obama Run’, organised by the pioneering Jakarta Free Spirit club, with its route visiting Obama’s previous schools and homes.

A new politics of lifestyle

Running events, in short, seem to be riding the wave of a more assertive middle-class. Once student groups, trade unions and political parties succeeded in tearing down the political and legal barriers that had separated the masses from the street. Now the middle-classes take their turn. They are certainly not fighting for freedom of speech or the right to vote. But they are demanding their rights as citizens for better public services, welfare and, crucially, access to open space and public amenities.

Organised running events demand the closure of public roads for lack of parks and sports fields. People get together in running clubs which are not defined by religious or ethnic loyalties. Many embark on fundraising campaigns for various charities. All of these add to the fact that outdoor sports in an urban environment expose the body to, and therefore highlight, the many evils of contemporary Indonesia that harm ordinary citizens’ quality of life.

Together with the Bike-to-Work Movement, the Coalition of Pedestrians, the Nebengers Community (car sharing) and other similar initiatives, runners have introduced a new kind of politics. It is politics based on lifestyle choices. Some individuals might catch the running bug and add voice to their citizenship claims. Some others ride the wave for self-promotion. In whichever guise, they are running for a cause, in style.

Benny Juliawan (orwellsj@googlemail.com) is a researcher with Sahabat Insan, an NGO working with migrant workers in Jakarta. Benny is an enthusiastic runner.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}

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