Fraud in sports: Marathon cheaters

This is the first of a five-part series discussing fraud in sports. This starts with today’s post which will discuss runners who have been publicly exposed as cheaters in marathons. Next Tuesday’s post will be about imposters and scammers in the world of thru-hiking, a popular endurance sport where people long-distance trail hike in areas like the Appalachian Trail in the Eastern United States or the Pacific Crest Trail which stretches from California to Washington. On Tuesday December 19, the third post will be about sports fraud via gambling, including betting by players and illicit investment schemes. The fourth post on December 26 will be about game fixing, such as the Black Sox Scandal in which several players on the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. The fifth and final post, on January 2, will be about major doping scandals, including Lance Armstrong and allegations of systematic doping by the Russian Olympics delegation.

Marathon cheating is a phenomenon that has both fascinated and infuriated running commentators. In a community which is fixated on qualifying times, personal bests, and self-identifications as hobbyist or elite runners which can be separated by mere seconds of pace time, honesty about runner times and speeds is sacred.   In this context, runners who cut courses short, falsify results, or claim publicity for false achievements, undermine the most fundamental measures of success in the marathon running world.

  • In the 1980 Boston Marathon, Rosie Ruiz, a 26-year old New Yorker, finished first among the female runners with an impressive time of just over two hours and thirty minutes. In the face of her amazing accomplishment, Rosie was nonplussed and composed – probably because she cut the course and did not run the 26.2 miles. Ruiz had her medal revoked when other runners stated that they witnessed her running onto the course at mile 25. It turned out that she exited the marathon course near the beginning and took the subway there, where she re-entered and claimed a false victory. Upon investigation, it was discovered that Ruiz’s Boston qualification time, run in the 1979 New York Marathon (her only other marathon before), was fake also, achieved because Ruiz again cut most of the course by riding the subway to re-enter near the end. Ruiz’s fraud rocked the marathon running community, in which road racers had a strong honor code that they felt was pure and safe from cheating that had afflicted sports with equipment or environments that could be altered or adjusted for cheating: Backtalk; 20 Years Later, the Legend of Rosie Ruiz Endures
  • Kip Litton intended to be well-known far outside of his social circles in Clarkston, Michigan as a champion marathoner. However, he has gained notoriety for a different accomplishment in marathon running entirely: prolific misrepresentation of his results and of races run. As Litton shot to the head of the pack in a number of small marathons, his fellow runners became confused by and curious about his quick rise to the top. By investigating race photographs and triangulating his likely performance based upon verifiable race times and per mile paces from previous chip-timed runs, other runners discovered that Litton was falsifying his performance. He was able to pull off this fraud by strategically picking races where he could cut courses or claim to have run qualifying times without even participating at all. The evidence of Litton’s misconduct assembled by the amateur investigators is fascinating and pathological in its devotion to his fraud, even amid Litton’s disqualifications from various races after inconsistencies were pointed out to directors: Marathon Man 
  • Social media has provided a fertile environment for inventive marathon cheating. Legitimate runners who share photos showing their bibs, the identifying numbers that runners wear pinned to their chests or backs during the race, have had those photos stolen and used for bib replication. Runners then use the fake bibs to “bandit,” or run incognito and illicitly, at races. This could be to avoid paying registration fees, to falsify qualifying records, for a prank, or for a creative type of identity theft. As discussed above, the runner community is vigilantly self-policing, and the fascination with these bandits leads to far-reaching vigilante investigations and reporting to race administrators to “out” cheaters:  Inside the Weird World of Social Media Marathon Cheating 
  • The 2017 Mexico City Marathon was mired in scandal when almost 6,000 runners, nearly 20% of the field of 29,000 runner, were disqualified for cheating. Investigation showed that many runners missed timing mats. Others, however, blatantly cut the course, either by riding the subway (harkening back to Rosie Ruiz in New York in 1979 and Boston in 1980) or “bib mules,” runners who wear bibs intended for other runners who do not compete at all, in order to falsify their results (typically to post a qualifying time for Boston or another exclusive race). What exactly happened in Mexico City remains unclear, but it seems to have been a combination of opportunistic runners who took advantage of technological difficulties or shortcomings at the race, and runners cutting the course short by missing timing mats. Such a dramatic disqualification rate should lead the Mexico City organizers and indeed anyone who is behind setting up and administrating a major race event to take a deep look at their internal controls and ensure that future races are set up to diminish the possibilities for going off-course or bandit running:  What the Hell Happened at the Mexico City Marathon?
  • For runners who achieve their results legitimately, race day represents many months or even years of hard efforts brought to fruition. Therefore, for serious runners, cheating and falsifying results is a real insult to all of their work and cheapens the prestige they seek of a credible accomplishment. Therefore many marathon runners who are active in the online communities such as the LetsRun forums take their annoyance or offense at this perceived dishonesty to the next level, launching widespread investigations into uncovering and calling out impropriety. Many runners who do not cheat see those who have cut courses or faked times bragging online, promoting themselves via social media, and their outrage at these actions speaks to the philosophical morality of running. At its most elemental level, and despite the many data-driven external successes one can achieve in the sport, running is a pursuit of internal success, a battle within the self for endurance and accomplishment. Cheating hinders and harms this. People who investigate and call out cheaters hope that they are working as deterrents to runner dishonesty as well as acting as a sort of informal self-regulatory organization for the running community: How to Catch a Marathon Cheat  

For a lot more fascinating examples of and insight into marathon cheating, check out the site Marathon Investigation. Run by Derek Murphy, a business analyst, marathoner, and running fan, the site is a comprehensive survey of impropriety and cheating at marathons all over the world. It offers a really compelling look into the analytical and research aspects of investigating and tracking potential cheaters by using historical data, GPS records, published running times, maps, race photos, and much more publicly available data. For more about Murphy and his motivations and methods, read this profile.

Check back next week, Tuesday December 12, for the second post in this series of five, which will be about fraud in sports as illustrated by thru-hiking fakers and scammers.