Why cheat in marathons?

Cheating in distance running has a long and varied history. Photo: Keystone via AP
Cheating in distance running has a long and varied history. Photo: Keystone via AP


  • Not for medals but for likes

The co-founder of the Miami marathon, Frankie Ruiz, was once asked on the radio if he was related to the most famous marathon cheat of all time. Rosie Ruiz ran just one of the expected 26 miles (42km) to win the Boston marathon of 1980. But though she may share Mr Ruiz’s name and Cuban heritage, the similarities end there. Mr Ruiz is even mulling an expensive investment—AI-powered facial-recognition cameras—to ensure that no runner, be they first or last, ever pulls a Rosie during one of his events.

Cheating in distance running has a long and varied history. At the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, Frederick Lorz, a 20-year-old bricklayer, hopped into a car after around ten miles of the marathon. He found the strength to resume ten miles later and finished, to no great surprise, in first place. He allowed a wreath to be laid upon his head before his unsanctioned assistance was revealed.

Lorz seems to have been an opportunist. (The St Louis race, organised by a madman who did not believe in hydration, was by all accounts hellish.) Others did a bit more preparation. During a 54-mile ultra-marathon in 1999, a South African runner, Sergio Motsoeneng, shared running duties with his brother, with whom he swapped clothes in a toilet. The prize money Mr Motsoeneng would have won for finishing tenth, with rather less than 54 miles under his belt, would have done a lot for his nine siblings. In 2010 Kip Litton went so far as to concoct his own marathon in Wyoming, pose as its race director under a different name and declare himself the winner. (Mr Litton has said that the event was a legitimate attempt at a marathon, but he agreed that a friend could falsify names of other participants when no one else showed up on the day.)

Marathon cheats pose a special sort of problem. Elite athletes share the road with weekend warriors. The first group is carefully regulated: if you are racing for the podium, you are drug-tested and live-streamed. People do try their luck. (The Athletics Integrity Unit, an anti-doping watchdog, maintains a list of banned athletes.) But blatant course-cutting is not a realistic proposition for the speedsters.

Runners back in the pack are less likely to be spotted. Cheating is not exactly rampant—the curious case of the Mexico City marathon of 2023, in which roughly a third of participants were disqualified, is an exception. But though it seems akin to cheating at the crossword, amateur cheating happens. And when ordinary people face such allegations, it is generally ordinary people who make them.

Derek Murphy, a data analyst from Ohio, has published claims about scores of amateur runners on his website, Marathon Investigation. He scans race results, calculating missed splits—interim times usually recorded automatically when runners pass over mats—to see if they stack up. If a racer’s finishing time makes sense only if four-minute miles were sandwiched between eight-minute ones, he probably used a bicycle somewhere. Mr Murphy also buys race photos, zooming in on athletes’ GPS watches, which show various details relating to their run. He once got a runner disqualified by showing that according to her watch she had run just 11.6 miles of a 13.1-mile race.

His project is divisive. In 2019 a 70-year-old runner whom he had accused of serial cheating committed suicide. Mr Murphy duly found himself on the other side of the internet mobs that he is routinely accused of inspiring. He says he now focuses on calling out people who are building a personal or business brand based on their results. The rise of “runfluencers" makes accusations seem more justified. Prize money may not be at stake but sponsorships—and ego—are. Sam Edwards of Loughborough University, a historian and ultra-marathoner, describes this era of running as one of “competitive life-style performance". He compares cheating in races to “photo-shopping an insta image before posting": both tweak reality in pursuit of realistic-enough perfection.

Flora Beverley, a British runfluencer, concedes that social media creates pressures to perform. Her kosher but disappointing time of four and a half hours in her first marathon earned her “so much hate". But she insists that the risks of cheating are worse. Social media magnifies the incentives to fudge times, but also makes it harder to get away with. For every social-media influencer, says one running coach in Brooklyn, there is a social-media sleuth.

Of course, these self-appointed investigators are not always right. Naming suspected amateur cheats delivers thrills like a video game. But the effects reverberate in the real world. A private email to a race director would be a wiser place to start than a speculative public post. It is also true, though, that when the detectives of the running world turn probing or nasty, influencers may forget that they have encouraged the attention. They, more than many, can understand the desire for a bigger stage.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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