"Born" in pub, Prague Marathon now ranked among world's best

Prague International Marathon, photo: archive of Radio Prague

Next Saturday, over 12,000 people will participate in the Prague Half Marathon, the precursor to the internationally renowned full Prague Marathon, which takes place in mid May. The man who has made possible these events – and many more runs around the Czech Republic – is Carlo Capalbo, an Italian businessman who has been living in Prague for over two decades.

Carlo Capalbo,  photo: Prague International Marathon
When we met at his busy office near the centre, I asked Capalbo what he had been doing prior to moving to the city.

“My last position was as head for Europe – at that time we’re talking about Western Europe, all of Eastern Europe was managed through Vienna – of a company that was called WordPerfect.

“I don’t know if you remember it, but at that time it was the second largest company in the world after Microsoft. I was a member of the board of WordPerfect International.

“Then in 1992, the world had changed and I felt a bit…I consider myself a good social and political observer of reality and I was a bit surprised.

“I felt that on the other side of the former ‘Wall’ there was a lot to discover. I wanted to discover and come here and see what was going on – not only and purely for business reasons, but just from curiosity.”

I was reading that you wrote a book about how to do business in this part of the world in Italian. What were your own experiences of doing business here in those days?

“When I started to write this book, the idea in the beginning was to create an intelligent, let’s say, investment guide for European entrepreneurs here. I chose Italian because that’s the language that I master best.

“This book started as an investment guide but I enlarged the scope and in the end it was not only an investment guide. The title – Prague: The Other Spring – was self-explanatory.

“It was a presentation of this new, beautiful country – from an investment point of view, but also from a pure touristic, social or political point of view.”

Tell me, what were the challenges of doing business here in those days?

Prague International Marathon,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Well, the challenge in ’92 and in ’93 in the Czech Republic…we – I say ‘we’ because I consider myself skoro Český [almost Czech] – we were flooded by so-called consultants full of studies and so on.

“So from one side there was huge enthusiasm from Czech people wishing to discover and to do and to create. From the other side there was a big invasion of these so-called consultants and there was a reaction, a kind of closing up by the people.

“For me as a foreigner the difficulties were a bit the old bureaucracy and a little bit of corruption, of course, because the former regime by definition generated corruption.

“But I was lucky enough, or good enough, to achieve what I had in mind. Also because the final goal was not only a pure commercial, profit-oriented goal – it was to improve society as a whole and to give the country a better stage in Europe.”

How did you hit on the idea of starting the Prague Marathon in the mid 1990s?

“Like everything in life, it started by chance [laughs]. But sometimes in life you have a hidden goal inside.

“The occasion was that a friend of mine who was an Olympic gold medalist and winner of the Boston and New York marathons and a few other things came to visit me.

“Of course, when a friend comes to visit you the first thing you do is go for a beer. And this is one of the best…in fact for me it’s the best beer in the world…so after the first or second beer in the late morning, he asked me, Carlo, why don’t you do a marathon?

“In order do a marathon you need a background, and Prague is a fantastic background. You should have a sporting tradition, and in this country there is a great legacy from Emil Zátopek, even though at that time Emil Zátopek was completely forgotten – he was not known by anybody.

Emil Zátopek | Photo: Roger Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
“And the third factor was that there was room – there was no such event here. That’s how I started. I called Mr. Zátopek and together we went to see the mayor.

“We expressed to him the do a New York Marathon-like event, to create a European ‘New York Marathon’, with the same model.

“Of course, the people at the administration were completely shocked, because they did not know what a marathon was. For them, a marathon was 100 people sweating and running through the fields.

“The industry didn’t exist here. There was no mass participation in the way that there is right now.”

How long did it take for the Prague Marathon to become the event that you had envisaged?

“Not yet [laughs] – it’s not yet what I had envisioned. Of course, we’ve made big steps. We were just lately quoted, four weeks ago, as the best organisation in the world.

“Which is a miracle. Because we don’t sit in New York, London or Tokyo, so we don’t enjoy in terms of infrastructure and professionalism what you can enjoy in London or New York or Tokyo.

“But on the other hand, we have a team who are extremely committed, extremely skilled, and with a lot of passion. And I believe with focus and discipline you can reach…or you can compensate for the lacks due to size of the market and the place where you live.

“I want to add something else. Living here and doing business here compared to London, New York, Berlin, Milan and so on is a lot more human. That is an aspect that for us is extremely important.”

Some people who’ve been to Prague but haven’t seen the marathon may be wondering – is Prague suitable for a marathon? A lot of the streets are cobblestoned, they’re narrow. Are there any particular challenges, geographically?

Prague International Marathon,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“That’s a question you should ask the IAAF. The federation declared Prague one of the top 10 events in the world.

“Yes, of course it’s easier to do a marathon in Berlin than in Prague, due to the urbanistic aspect of the city.

“But that’s also an advantage. Because starting and passing through and ending in the Old Town in one of the most beautiful cities in the world is an immense asset.”

How much is the success of the marathon linked to Prague’s general attractiveness as a tourist destination? I was reading that more than half of the participants are from abroad.

“Yes. Altogether in our Run Czech [the name of Capalbo’s company, formally know as PIM/Prague International Marathon] project, which includes the marathon in Prague and many other events, a total of 24 percent of runners are foreign.

“Most of them come for the marathon and the half marathon. In the marathon we reach 50 percent.

“Of course, Prague plays a big role. But we also have people who come back. That means that more and more the organisation, the quality and the service the runners receive, and the beauty of the events, counts more than general tourist interest. But of course it helps.”

My last question is, why do you think the idea of the marathon has such a place in people’s minds as this great achievement? Is it because it’s a difficult thing to but it’s also achievable?

“I think it concerns a little bit more today’s society. We have some degenerated aspects in the former West. In general, people now feel they need some clean, healthy, simple, positive activity. This is a worldwide tendency.

“In the Czech Republic particularly the boom, which started five years ago, is also due to the fact that in the country – and this is perfectly justifiable – in the first 15, 20 years families and individuals needed to equip themselves with material comforts: beautiful cars, beautiful house, beautiful phone, and so on.

Photo: CzechTourism
“But maybe then they started to ask themselves, maybe it’s time to do something for ourselves from a physical point of view, from a psychological point of view.

“And the marathon is the mama of all challenges. It’s not only the day, it’s a few months before in which you train, you share with your friends, colleagues, family, and you clean yourself spiritually and psychologically.

“Then when you achieve it, it is an immense help for everything else you do in your life – for your self-confidence and your physical and mental health.”