Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (center, front row) and other guests sound air horns at the start of the 2023 Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon on Nathan Road,Tsim Sha Tsui, on Sunday. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

Hong Kong’s iconic marathon event resumed on Sunday with 37,000 participants, recording its highest-ever attendance rate of 96 percent and sending a strong signal of the city’s recovery after being scrapped last year due to the pandemic.

The 2023 Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon is the special administrative region’s largest sporting event this year following the gradual lifting of most of the social distancing restrictions and the resumption of normal travel with the Chinese mainland and overseas communities.

The entire quota of 37,000 competitors was taken up, with 96 percent of the applicants confirmed they would attend. The event was to have been held in November last year, but was postponed to Feb 12 this year because of the virus outbreak.

The organizers said they might organize the race again in November this year with more participants.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu presided over the opening ceremony as dawn broke on Sunday, and sounded air horns to start the event. He said the SAR is back to normal and will gradually host a series of sports competitions and international events this year.

He pledged to take Hong Kong forward and promote livelihood, economic and social activities to make the city better than ever.

Yeung Yun-hung, secretary for culture, sports and tourism, said on social media after presenting the awards to the winners that such a major sports event can channel positive energy, enhance cohesion of the community, and strengthen Hong Kong’s position as a hub for international sports events.

The SAR government will continue to support the hosting of major global sports events in the future, he said.

The full marathon kicked off at 6 am from Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. There was also a half-marathon, and a 10-kilometer race starting at the Eastern District Corridor at 5.45 am. All the races ended at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.

Kenyan runner, Philimon Kiptoo Kipchumba was the champion in the full marathon male category with a time of 2 hours, 10 minutes. In the female full marathon section, Fantu Eticha Jimma of Ethiopia came in first, completing the race in 2 hours and 27 minutes. None of the full-marathon participants broke the event’s record.

Hong Kong runners Gi Ka-man and Wong Cheuk-ning were the first to cross the finishing line in the male and female full marathon, respectively.

Wong said she was delighted to achieve such a good result, and the competition’s atmosphere was great as the crowds continued to cheer them up.

Local participants Wong Kai-lok and Lo Ying-chiu won the championship in the male and female half-marathon categories in 1 hour, 9 minutes, 50 seconds, and 1 hour, 20 minutes and 23 seconds, respectively.

A runner surnamed Wong and another surnamed Choi were the champions, respectively, in the male and female 10-km race categories.

Hong Kong’s well-known movie star Chow Yun-fat ran in the 10km race and finished in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 58 seconds.

Xi Tianqi, a journalist, said she was thrilled to take part in the Hong Kong Marathon for the first time.

She said the safety measures taken had been sufficient as she could see volunteers every half a kilometer, as well as ambulance motorcycles and aid stations along the runway. She also saw many runners cosplaying themselves as Spider-Man or Line Bear.

Zhao Yanjun, a City University of Hong Kong student who participated in the 10km race, said the marathon is the best way for him to explore the city. He enjoyed running through the city’s streets, taking in beautiful views of the sea and the urban areas.

With most of the COVID-19 curbs lifted, the organizers also removed some anti-pandemic measures for the runners. They were no longer required to take polymerase chain reaction or rapid antigen tests for COVID-19. But, they still had to put on a mask on arriving at the starting line and immediately after completing the race.

The prizes for the top three winners in the full-marathon category ranged from $10,000 to $30,000. There was also a special bonus of HK$10,000 ($1,274) for local male and female full-marathon runners who finished the race within 3 and 3.5 hours. According to Kwan Kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Athletics Affiliates, 151 men and 66 women received the bonus. About 500 overseas runners took part in the event.

Kwan said the weather presented the biggest challenge for the participants, noting that the relative humidity reached 90 to 100 percent on Sunday morning.

According to the Hospital Authority, 35 runners had been hospitalized as of 5pm on Sunday due to high body temperatures, dizziness caused by the humid weather, or sprains caused by the slippery roads. Four of them were in serious condition, 10 were stable, while 21 were later discharged.