Doing It For Charity
Run a half-marathon, climb a well-known mountain, cycle a long distance route. A lot of people will assume you’re doing it for charity, or ought to be.
From a charity’s point of view any event that raises funds is welcome provided that it is legal and voluntary. An organised run, with logos on vests and an atmosphere of collaborative endeavour, raises the profile of the institution.
From the runner’s viewpoint the charity provides a motivational force. The effort of running or other endurance sports, even quite extreme ones, is generally good for your body. Exerting it for the benefit of someone else feels good for the soul. Christianity teaches that Jesus, by suffering an agonised death on the cross, atoned for the sins of humanity. And though many sporting fund-raisers may have no conscious Christian or other religious affinity, the idea that personal self-sacrifice of a physical sort can or should bring community benefits clearly has deep psychological roots.
Once upon a time the sporting challenges undertaken for charity were small-scale, mundane. Schoolchildren would raise money from their families and friends by swimming up and down the local baths – so many pence per length. The combination of learning to swim, gaining a reward for attaining a challenging goal, and passing on that reward to someone who needed it more, was educational on many levels: what was not to applaud? Grandparents, neighbours, parents’ work colleagues etc coughed up.
These days, though, it has become a huge adult industry. Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, now in its ninth year, raised £48 million in 2016. It consists of a series of challenges to women, “empowering” them to run 5 km, 10 km or negotiate a Pretty Muddy obstacle course while raising money for research.
Many events require participants to get a minimum level of sponsorship in order to participate – £200, for instance, in the case of the annual London to Brighton cycle ride organised by the British Heart Foundation.
And other sports are getting in on the act. MacMillan Cancer Support have created a Longest Day Golf Challenge, which raised £1.5 million this year from teams of golfers – “golfing heroes”, the website calls them – playing four rounds, i.e. 72 holes, from dawn to dusk on 21 June.
At this point one might start to wonder quite how much heroism is required to play golf all day. Family and friends might reckon that their “hero” plays quite enough golf already.
Then again a visiting Martian might express at least initial puzzlement at the whole caboodle: what is the logical connexion between endurance sport and charitable fund-raising? If the charity is worth supporting, why don’t you just give the money? Why do someone’s sweat and travail make it more supportable?
Actually you don’t have to be a Martian to raise these questions, just French. While participation in sport for charity is a mainstream activity in the Anglo-Saxon world (Britain, the USA and former Dominions) it has not gained the same cache over the Channel. A British runner employed in a bank in Paris who tried to get charitable sponsorship from his French work colleagues reports in an on-line blog that his requests were met with bemusement, if not downright suspicion. “The reality is that when you line up to do a marathon in Paris, all the people wearing charity vests or dressed like a chicken or Scooby-doo tend to be foreigners running for good causes. And the ones in the running vests and the latest lycra ensembles aiming for personal bests tend to be the French.”
It would be wrong to infer from this that France hosts a less altruistic society. On the whole they pay higher taxes and insurance contributions to fund a better resourced health system, for a start. The British way – competitive fund-raising by a myriad of separate charities relying upon individual subscription and sponsorship – is unlikely to allocate resources in a manner which economists would regard as efficient.
But for many runners, climbers, cyclists, even golfers, it’s a win-win collaboration, keeping charities resourced, making participants fitter and allowing sponsors to feel virtuous. As old time US comedian Will Rogers once explained – “We can’t all be heroes, because someone has to sit on the kerb and clap ’em as they go by”.