Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Running is the fastest growing sporting activity in India: Anil and Vivek Singh

The promoters of the iconic Mumbai marathon on how they got India to adopt running as an everyday activity

Published: Jan 25, 2024 10:44:12 AM IST
Updated: Jan 25, 2024 10:54:50 AM IST

Running is the fastest growing sporting activity in India: Anil and Vivek SinghAthletes run on Bandra-Worli sea link bridge as they take part in a marathon on January 21, 2024 in Mumbai, India. Image: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

On a recent Sunday, 56,000-odd people hit the streets of Mumbai to run the 19th edition of the Mumbai Marathon. The event began in 2004 and was promoted by brothers Anil and Vivek Singh, the founders of the sports consultancy Procam International. In 20 years, they have not only launched marathons across cities, and raised over Rs 500 crore for philanthropic initiatives through running, but have also fostered a running movement throughout the country. In an episode of Sports UnLtd, the Singh brothers tell Forbes India about the genesis of running and how marathons have turned into a melting pot for the society. Edited excerpts:  

Q. How did Procam International come about?  
Anil Singh:
I launched Procam in 1988. At that time my friend Enrico Piperno and myself, both being national tennis players (Rico was number one), we launched ProCam, which is ‘professional camps’. Soon, I learnt that this journey is not worth the entire story if my brother doesn't partner me. He had no intention, but all I can say is that I'm glad I used my elder brotherly clout. When we started Procam, there was nothing like the sports management business whatsoever. But life has turned a lot.  

Q. Vivek, how much of the elder brotherly bullying did you have to endure to join Procam?
Vivek Singh:
Anil has been a fantastic elder brother and that's why the relationship has endured. Our professional relationship is more than 35 years old. Sports and sports management is an extension of his passion. I bring in some other strengths that kind of make it a business.
If you take the marathon as a movement, you’ll realise that it endorses what you're hearing here today. It's actually been a movement vision, which we had and which is very difficult. Today, it's very easy to say the marathon this, and the marathon that. Can I take you back 20 years to a country that didn't run, when there were approximately two running events and just a few thousand registered runners. For two people with very limited resources to step up and say, we're going to make the country run and we're going to do it not as an event, but in a way that it becomes a movement—that is fantastic.  

Q. Back then, long-distance running wasn’t India’s thing. Why did you foray into marathons?
My brother and me were guests at the London Marathon in 2003. There, a few things blew us away. First, everybody on that starting line had a story to tell. And that’s about 50,000 people. That was a huge gripping point. Second, every major city in the world had a marathon. So why not Mumbai? And third was the kind of vibe, the goosebumps you felt just by being there. It's difficult to explain what I mean by that, but you know when you're in a different environment.  

VS: The coming together of people of all shapes and sizes, of all colours and denominations, of all religious faiths, it doesn't happen except the Ganesh festival. The marathon is the sporting equivalent of a large-spirited festival like this.  

When nobody could see even a sapling, we planted five seeds into the ground—that the running movement must benefit society, it must bring pride and prestige to the host city, must have communal harmony as its underlying undertone, must have charity, and it also must promote health and fitness. Today, each of those five seeds are mighty oak trees.

Q. What were some of the teething problems you faced when you started with your first city marathon, in Mumbai in 2004?  
We need to answer this with a different lens. Like Vivek rightly said, there were hardly any running events back then. We were clear that we wanted to shake this nation with a start. My brother and I were very clear that we wanted to make it Asia's number one marathon from day one. Two, we wanted to ensure that we shut the roads of Mumbai, and what happens on Marine Drive will resound around this country for sure. Third, we wanted to do live television—we were clear that if it isn’t live, it isn’t sport. And you're talking about 2004, and we have 200 people that work on television. So you can understand the scale of it. And also don't forget the technology that was there—those days it had to be certain mounted cameras on certain kinds of helicopters. But that's easier said than done, considering none of the equipment and expertise was available at that time. 

Running is the fastest growing sporting activity in India: Anil and Vivek SinghL to R: Anil Singh, Vivek Singh

Q. How easy/difficult it was to shut down Marine Drive?  
To transfer the conviction that Anil and myself had upon someone of something they've not seen was the toughest thing. They looked at us and asked what’s your experience in conducting marathons? Just because you’ve attended one London Marathon doesn’t make you an expert. We went to convince the traffic commissioner of Mumbai to shut down roads, otherwise he wouldn't put the proposal up to government. And the commissioner, a wonderful man who became a very dear friend, said that I have a book that says the President gets a 2 km rolling road closure. In that book, there’s no one above the President. I can’t help you unless you change the Constitution and put the marathon and the Singh brothers above the President. Now it's to convince these people that, yes, we are not above the president, but this event requires a certain dispensation which it cannot do without. And that’s the beauty. Because multiple agencies have to coordinate and come together to host a marathon, a successful marathon shows a city in a good light. Today, all these agencies are passionate supporters of the marathon.

AS: In those days, we were looking for serious money because when you want to do Asia's number one marathon, when you want the likes of Michael Johnson and Mike Powell to be the face of the event, you want to shut down roads, it requires money. My brother and me would knock on doors, and, while the brands did know who Procam was, they couldn't wrap their heads around why we needed Rs 4 crore for a marathon. The kind of money that we were asking from the title sponsor over three years—in those days, Rs 15 crore was a lot of money. I had pitched to a major corporation, and I suddenly got a call from their head of marketing to go and meet him. One Saturday afternoon, he sits in front of me and tells me “I've been thinking, there may be a method to your madness. However, this figure that you're asking for is absurd. If you want to start up with a crore and a half, I recommend you do it that way.” And I said to him, you know, I made a small mistake. I don't want Rs 3.5 crore, I want Rs 4 crore. We bantered about it for a while and when I was leaving, he said: “Mr Singh, I think you're making a mistake.” And I said to him, “Sir, you probably are way more right than I'll ever be. But I have one shot at it. If I fail doing it my way, at least I can sleep. If I fail doing it your way, how the hell will I ever get sleep?”

Also read: Gold Rush: How 2023 panned out for Indian sports

Q. In the end, did you get to raise that money for the first marathon?
Yes, we had raised more than that. That was just the title sponsor amount. And we made a loss, but it's okay. You know, we never cut our coat according to the cloth. So we actually raised much more than Rs 4 crore and still made a loss.  

Today running is the fastest growing sporting activity in India. There are 1,600 running events in the country. The sponsorship paradigm is second only to cricket. People don't realise how big running is. After cricket, they talk about ISL, the kabaddi league. If you add up ISL and the kabaddi league, you will probably not reach the sponsorship that running gets. People don't know this because it's fragmented, but about Rs 800 crore of sponsorship comes into running every year. There are 2 .5 million registered runners in India. Every city and every town has its own running event of varying distances. And it all started here in Mumbai in 2004.  

Q. What are some of your most abiding memories of 20 years of the Mumbai marathon?
I’d like to bring in one aspect here—it's women and running. People don't realise this, it's so taken for granted today, but women didn't run. I remember sitting in front of the BEST general manager at that time, the second edition of the Mumbai Marathon was coming up, and it had slipped our minds to take the BEST permission for the BEST light poles. And we were worried because these senior officers hate going at the last minute and asking for permission. So we gingerly went and asked for permission for using the electricity poles. And he smiled and said: “Mr Singh, I walk at Shivaji Park. People I've never seen out of their houses are walking with me and the people who are walking with me are now running. You can take whatever permissions that you want.” Similarly, you can see women running today, you can see that paradigm shift not just in Mumbai, but in Delhi, in Kolkata, in Bengaluru, how that empowerment has happened. From housewives to working professionals, women have taken control of their lives.