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The curious case of Parkrun andthe parish council

Youcan’t help but have noticed the curious story about Stoke Gifford parish council and Parkrun. The reaction has been to say the least, outraged.

Stoke Gifford Parish Council have embraced the Vicar of Dibley approach to local politics by deciding to try to force Parkrun to pay for their weekly use of the local park for athletics events. It may make good economic sense to them, but even Hugo Horton could figure out that attacking a community of  the selfrighteous like the Parkrun  athletes was going to be a bad idea in terms of public relations.

The problem of course is that Stoke Gifford is a place where the old and the new clash, horrifically,as the area that was once just another parish gets turned into a suburb of Bristol, with an influx of new residents who make the older population feel uncomfortable about the changes they see around them.

Parkrun is another example of moral entrepeneurship that has sprung up as a challenger to the old orthodoxy of the Amateur Athletics Association, (like, say, the way Help for Heroes sprang up to challenge the Royal British Legion). In the process Parkrun has gone from a few people in one park to a professional organization with its own sponsorship deals, well paid staff and a tribal, evangelical following who treat Parkrun as the solution to all the nation’s health problems. In the process what startedout as a fun run in a park has become a limited company, and a separate trading company that uses the usefully obscure description of itself as a non-profit organization, which many people mistake as meaning it’s a charity.

Now, here’s the curious thing. Parkrun is hugely professional, and only the most sour of cynics could stoop to highlighting the way in which this non-profit organization has discovered that the best person to be its event support manager was the wife of its founder. We can all be sure that was the result of a fair and open recruitment process. Nevertheless it seems as if there is a healthy scepticism about Parkrun in some quarters, and its very success, its own microshop supported by Wiggle, its professional staff irritate others who have not been so successful in marketting their sporting brand. Simply put, Parkrun is both disruptive, and divisive, and Stoke Gifford is just one example of that.

There’s nothing wrong about Parkrun, or even the way it openly solicits funding from local authorities to establish new events that become part of the Parkrun family. The type of people who take part, their obsessions with bagging courses and recording data may be a matter of personal taste, but that’s all.

However, Parkrun’s eveangelists do it no favours; it’s far from a universal panacea, and it promotes an exclusive approach to health and fitness that says such things are best done within organizations, within tribes; its like an athletics version of the Alpha course.

It’s possible to put on low key sporting events without requiring a huge marketing organization. One example would be Audax UK, the eccentric and venerable organization that runs long distance cycling events for the adventurous of spirit. The difference between such a group and Parkrun is almost a model of modern business practice; you can have any length of event you like with Parkrun, as long as it’s 10k, and data collection is everything. You get your barcode scanned and your time is handed back as  a percentage of the standard for 10k for your age and sex. Compare that to the old-fashioned and eccentric world of Audax, with its permanent events where you send the organizer some proofs that you’ve been where you say you have, like ATM slip or cafe receipts, and get your medal by return of post, and it’s like comparing MacDonalds to an old fashioned greasy spoon.

It’s probably the case that Parkrun oversells its health benefits to the state – it’s demographics may not stand up to a rigorous analysis, and if my local area is an example, it seems to have a predominantly middle class audience. The nearest Parkrun venue to me isn’t accessible by public transport, for instance, making it only an option for those who travel by car. If you’d cycled that far, why would you get off your bike to run round the park?

Nevertheless, Stoke Gifford Parish Council seem to have managed to get themselves into a terrible mess by taking on an organization with more staff than them, better marketing than them, and more support than them. Many of those supporters neither know nor care about the problems of a small parish council, and some of them, judging by Twitter, appear to believe anything with council in the name is a huge organization with much greater resources than a small council which faces a bill equal to 20% of its annual precept (and 60% of its free income after staffing costs) for the repair of the paths in the park Parkrun uses.

As usual, amongst the clamour there’sa fascinating story about people, change and the way in which we address genuine matters of public concern. Most of that is lost in the headlines and the comments from the well known but ill-informed, and the commentariat.



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This entry was posted on April 14, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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