The sub-two-hour marathon – what do we know about the great British record holder behind it?
In the time it took Eliud Kipchoge to prove that No Human is Limited, plastic pollution was pushing for a new record 2000 metric tons of waste dumped into the ocean in less than 2 hours. That’s 8 million tonnes a year. And in Britain there is a common link – indirect in the plastic pollution, direct in terms of Kipchoge’s stellar run. Step forward elite sports superfan Sir Jim Ratcliffe (in no way to be confused with Paula Radcliffe). Ratcliffe is the big chief at one of the world’s most successful petrochemicals firm, and by virtue of that, a massive producer of plastic. The firm in question estimates that it produces about a million tonnes of plastic per year. That quantity of plastic could make 18 billion half litre plastic bottles.
So what is this company and have you heard of it? Yes, you probably have. You may have even seen the name a lot and not really registered it?
Ratcliffe’s baby is called INEOS. The company calls itself ‘The Word for Chemicals’. Or for people who prefer it spelled out, the very athletic sounding INspec Ethylene OxideSpecialities.
INEOS is privately owned, which means that Britain can beat its collective chest for its richest citizen, a true industrialist, who owns an international empire worthy of the Victorians at peak. At £21bn in personal wealth, Sir Jimmy is also the world’s most influential fracking fan and, according to the Guardian, a tax exile Monaco resident who is married to an Italian tax lawyer. The Guardian says that he and his business partners expect too save £4bn in tax revenue by the Monaco move. INEOS is also a leading force in lobbying the government to exempt the chemicals industry from environmental taxes.
Politically, Ratcliffe is very active. He called the government ‘pathetic’ over its cautious fracking rules. He is a ‘get on with it’ Eurosceptic who has managed to shackle the equally Eursceptic Unite union to his plan for workers in order to keep Scottish petro-site Grangemouth open for business. INEOS vs Unite was a showdown that saw the union capitulate and is an epic marker of the ruthless side of Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe is not one to be told what to do, and INEOS is just the same.
Ratcliffe’s interests in sport extend to Sir Ben Ainslie’s Americas Cup team and Sir Dave Brailsford’s cycling team, the latter brought to prominence as Team Sky, led by luminaries in the sport including Tour de France champions Chris Froome and Geriant Thomas. He owns sports teams too and is rumoured to be ready to step in at Chelsea if fellow petrochem billionaire Roman Abramovitch finally loses heart.
But, back to Kipchoge’s astonishing exploits. There are many views about what we should, for accuracy, call The INEOS 1.59 Challenge rather than ‘The Sub 2hr Marathon’, mostly about the undoubted heroic running of Kipchoge vs the science supporting the event. Whatever your view of the 2hr marathon, as an opinion itself it isn’t important to INEOS. They just want eyeballs on an event that INEOS has dubbed a moon landing moment, an analogy that has caught on. INEOS doesn’t care what you think about the Challenge, but it does want you to view it, talk about it, debate it and see their name associated like a light kind of tinnitus. It is viewing that is important to the brand – through any media channel at all. For INEOS the desired result is just a wall of INEOS branded running shirts that help to normalise a company name that inevitably is deeply controversial. They don’t want you to look too deeply into why that brand is there. You can try this out for yourself by asking any marathon fan what INEOS is. I did. Mostly they don’t know. But if it had been Coca-Cola or McDonald’s how different would the reporting of this stunt have been? There would have been plenty casting negatives about, even though these brand giants are incredibly open and transparent about how they behave, certainly in comparison to INEOS. In a McDonald’s sponsored stunt, we would have heard a barrage of noise about obesity, rainforests and exploitation. Not so for INEOS.
There is no denying that INEOS, this giant producer of plastic nurdle mountains, has, like any capitalist Leviathan, the capacity to do the world as much good as harm. INEOS may well be leading the way on advances in recycling, and energy efficiency in one of its labs somewhere. It might also be hoping some of its pollutions slip under the radar, such as its accidental caustic soda poisoning of the Manchester Ship Canal. Certainly though, we are a bit 21st Century stuffed without some of its products, including carbon fibre, engineering polymers or synthetic lubricants for cars.
There is an argument that says their efforts to get into sport should be supported. It is the same kind of double-edged sword that we see whenever INEOS’s Saudi business associates take on sports properties. Are Saudis washing their hands of misdemeanours through sport, do they just love sport, or is sport levering open access to human rights, women’s rights, diversification away from a strict regime? You decide, and whilst you do observe British heavyweight boxers are fighting tooth and nail for the massive Arabian purse. Any observer of the recent athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar would say that oil and gas money mix like oil and water, you need to stir the beaker constantly to keep up appearances of a blend.
In other words, using an analogy Ratcliffe might appreciate, the chemistry isn’t automatic, and needs work for a solution.
What’s in it for INEOS?
A chemicals goliath must surely be looking for some kind of reaction to the INEOS 1.59 Challenge? Is INEOS? Something we always ask about around a brand stunt is what is the message? With this one, if you are Nike, the message is pretty clear. Does this author have a pair of Nike shoes that I put on for road PB attempts? Yes, I do. Are there millions like me, training for PBs. Yes, there are. Job done. Road race domination footwear = Nike. But the message for INEOS is… actually non-existent. They don’t really want you to know what the marketing strategy is. They don’t want you to have a slogan to hang onto. “No Giant Corporation is Limited” just won’t do. This is stunt advertising at its lowest of lows. A massive event has been put on by a brand with a total lack of messaging about what the brand stands for. If INEOS are really the good guys, perhaps they should be telling us what they get from supporting elite athletes, but a rudimentary search of the website tells us nothing but blah.
INEOS ‘has always been drawn to those with grit, determination and focus. And for one reason alone: Those kinds of people can – and often do – make a difference. INEOS believes that individuals can excel when challenged, and that great teams can achieve extraordinary results. It also believes that keeping fit is essential to a healthy and happy life.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the sentiment. INEOS also states that it has donated hundreds of thousands to help develop a healthy interest in sport and more recently turned its interest to elite athletes. That, by the way, does not sound like too staggering a commitment. When INEOS was donating to ‘a healthy interest in sport’, £100,000 could have been raised simply if the boss donated a pound for every £210,000 of his net worth. I imagine Ratcliffe in his Counting House – £210,000 for me, £1 for sport, £210,000 for me, £1 for sport!
The above is said strictly tongue in cheek. Certainly INEOS 1.59 Challenge will inspire people to strive for greater levels of fitness and achievement and it is hard to put a figure on that – though the newspapers have assessed the costs to INEOS as likely £15M.
The Challenge has been delivered with single minded determination. The determination is exemplified by having an ex-Olympian, John Mayock, being head of sport at the chemco.
“No one should ever tell INEOS that something cannot be done,” he says.
And that is certainly the one really clear message that I took away when I was researching Sir Jim Ratcliffe for this blog piece.