Marathon cheats: Taking the medal without breaking a sweat

Marathon cheats: Taking the medal without breaking a sweat

The photograph of him crossing the finish line of the Athens Authentic Marathon on November 13 is still making the rounds on the web. With a cap and sunglasses hiding his features, and a tight black T-shirt accentuating his portly figure, the 47-year-old seemed to breeze through the last few meters into the Panathenaic Stadium. His time was 3 hours and 31 minutes. A closer examination of the digital checkpoints along the 42-odd kilometer route, however, raises questions.

There is no record of the black-clad man passing the 5-, 10- and 15-kilometer marks. He appears for the first time somewhere at the halfway point. This middle-aged amateur runner appears to have covered 21.1 kilometers in 56.13, that is two minutes faster than the world record of 58.23. There is no doubt that he cheated.

But the mystery man is the not the only to have cut corners on November 13. I sit down with Nikos Polias, a veteran marathon champion who has been responsible for the electronic timing system for the past few years, and we examine each case one by one. There are only a few dozen cheats among the 13,772 runners that crossed the finish line on November 13 and those who have been confirmed have been disqualified and their times were stricken off the official record. The data processing is still ongoing, however, so the marathon officials do not have a final figure yet.

Indicatively, we have a runner who covered the 42-odd kilometers in 4 hours and 27 minutes who appears to have run the first half of the race in 31 minutes. At least three participants seem to have started the race at the 30th kilometer, clocking in a final time at the stadium of around 3 hours. In one of the most confusing cases, a professional doctor and amateur runner is spotted at every checkpoint and ended with a time of under 3 hours and 30 minutes, but is seen to have an irregular – and suspicious – pace at different points of the race: He runs the first 15 kilometers in 1 hour and 20 minutes and then covers the next 20 kilometers, an uphill slog, in just 1 hour and 18 minutes. His name is no longer on the official record, though his Facebook page is full of congratulatory messages from his friends and he writes that he is not pleased with his performance, vowing to do better next time.

“Vanity is the main characteristic shared by all these people. They want to bask in the victory without putting in the effort,” says Giorgos Dousis, who is responsible for supervising the route.

Part of Dousis’s job is to spot cheats along the way. “I don’t hide out in creeks and alleyways on the day of the race,” he says. “We have all sorts of checks against cheats.”

Dousis is responsible for noting complaints and objections from runners, as well as examining suspicious performances spotted by Polias’s team. He then cross-checks the timer data with the photographs taken along the route.
Every runner’s number bib is fitted with a microchip and there are nine checkpoints along the route, many also equipped with cameras, that track each athlete’s progress.

Dousis remembers a peculiar case from a few years ago, in the 10,000-meter race that takes place in parallel to the Authentic Marathon. It concerned a 60-year-old amateur with a decent record of times who appeared to cover the toughest uphill leg of the race in just over 3 minutes per kilometer. His final time was not recorded and the runner lodged a complaint.

“When you can prove that you can run uphill faster than [Kenyan pro] Eliud Kiptanui, then I’ll admit I made a mistake,” Dousis recalls telling the 60-year-old.

When he saw that the same runner put down his name the following year, Dousis decided to take more drastic measures and assigned an athlete to follow him over the entire course to ensure the 60-year-old was not cutting corners. On the day of the race, however, the man never showed up at the starting line.

“Last year we had two ladies who were obviously out of shape starting the marathon. They were among the last to set off; they were almost walking. They eventually crossed the finish line, but were nowhere to be seen along the route,” says Dousis of another incident.

One of the ways of cheating that authorities have observed in the past is runners quitting the race at some point by boarding the support van and then turning up at the finish line later to pick up their participation medal. Careful filtering of the results soon got them struck off.

Another ruse involves runners participating with numbers from the previous year’s race. This year, 77 old numbers were recorded, which allowed the impostors to enjoy the race (including the services provided and the medal at the end) without paying the participation fee (ranging from 40 to 110 euros, depending on demand) that thousands of others had to pay.

Polias says they were spotted because each chip has a unique code that is used only once.

Another problem when cheats reuse numbers is that you can have two runners with the same one in a single race. Dousis spotted a man this year who was wearing a woman’s number from last year and had folded it so that the name would not be visible.

“When you cheat, you’re disrespecting the athletes and the institution,” says Athens Authentic Marathon coordinator Makis Asimakopoulos.

The phenomenon is not restricted to Greece, so there are special international teams responsible for monitoring performances.

Tota Golfinopoulou, who is in charge of registrations in Athens, says that new checks and measures are constantly being developed to combat cheats.

Asimakopoulos, however, adds that while cheats are disqualified, they bear no additional punishment for the violation, as there are no disciplinary measures in the rulebook to deal with amateur cheats. Sanctions are only imposed in national championships by the track federation.

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