Long distance races have never been more scrutinized, with clocks breaking down finishing times by hundredths of a second and cameras everywhere. But one thing has not changed: Cheating.
Witness last weekend’s Shenzhen half-marathon, where 258 runners were caught taking shortcuts or otherwise breaking the rules, according to the Xinhua news agency (via Reuters). There were three “impostors” in the race and up to 18 wearing fake bibs, according to the report. They face a lifetime ban from the event.
Most of the other 237 runners were caught by traffic cameras and photographers as they cut through bushes on the 13.1-mile course. Each of them can be banned for two years from the annual race, which attracts a field of around 16,000 in China’s fourth-largest city. Some runners were caught turning around at least a half-mile before they were supposed to, according to AFP, thus potentially shortening their distance by at least a mile.
“We deeply regret the violations that occurred during the event,” organizers told the Xinhua news agency, according to Reuters. “Marathon running is not simply exercise, it is a metaphor for life, and every runner is responsible for him or herself.”
Xinhua called the cheating “deeply shameful,” adding (via AFP), “Don’t run and forget why you run. Don’t let the marathon turn sour.” One user on China’s Weibo social media platform wrote: “There are too many marathons in China nowadays and too many so-called runners,” according to Reuters, “but runners who really love running are still in short supply.”
Marathons and road races are booming in China, where the Chinese Athletics Association says 1,072 marathons and road races have been held this year, a dramatic increase over the 22 held in 2011, according to Xinhua. Last year, Beijing half-marathon organizers introduced a facial recognition system to crack down on cheaters. After the latest incident, one of China’s biggest publications, the People’s Daily, implored runners in an editorial to “respect the marathon and respect sporting spirit.”
That spirit has been violated across the globe, often in qualifying for marquee races. In 2015, for instance, Runner’s World reported that 2,439 Boston Marathon finishers ran the race at least 20 minutes slower than their qualifying times. So-called “race results sleuths” analyzed at least 1,409 of those runners and suspected 47 of wrongdoing, with 29 swapping bibs, 10 cutting the course, four falsifying results and four acting as bib mules (a faster runner recruited by another to run while wearing the slower runner’s bib).
Cheating in road races became famous in 1980, when Rosie Ruiz won the Boston Marathon until an investigation determined that she had cut the course. Derek Murphy, a financial analyst in Cincinnati, even created a website, MarathonInvestigation.com, to track allegations of cheating. In 2017, 15 runners were kicked out of Boston’s race by the Boston Athletic Association, thanks to Murphy’s site.
“I’m very analytical; I work with numbers all day,” he said, telling the Boston Globe that most of his tips about cheaters in races of all sizes come from followers. Because of that, he focuses on major races.
“I really understand about what it takes to finish a marathon and how people work really hard to get that,” Murphy, who has run marathons himself, told the New York Post. “So yeah, it definitely rubbed me the wrong way that people were taking shortcuts and that’s pushing someone out because their route was oversold.”
Murphy said he is doing his best to help honest runners, although he can’t police the race routes.
“Really, this kind of started as a hobby, but then once it started getting some attention, it began to resonate with people,” he told the New York Post. “It’s kind of what I do at night instead of sitting and zoning out in front of the TV or a computer screen. It’s like a puzzle.”
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