Philadelphia Marathon On Cheating: Who Cares?
Last week I was contacted by a concerned friend, who witnessed course cutting at the Philadelphia Marathon. He was worried that the cheaters had gotten away with it, but I assured him that justice would be done. After all, even though it appears at first glance that Philly's out-and-back second half makes it a course cutter's dream, I pointed out that in addition to the announced mats (start, 10k, HM, 30k and finish), it was known that additional (unannounced) mats were used in Philly. I (mistakenly) assured my friend that they'd take care of it faster than you can say "Kip Litton". Sadly, it seems that officials at the Philadelphia Marathon are not particularly concerned with the integrity of their race. After my friend sent multiple emails to them to express his concerns, here's the underwhelming response he received nearly a week later:
We weed out the obvious cheaters and then check our other resources when a runner's performance is questioned. The truth of the matter is that very few people actually cheat. Don't get me wrong, some do and we see it but most don't. What most races around the world have seen is that people end up cutting the course and not finishing more from just being tired than from cheating and most will actually contact us when they realize that they crossed the finish line and got a time. In most of these cases, the people who do cheat only cheats (sic) themselves because they don't get an award and they have a hollow performance. Races could spend a lot of time weeding out every cheater in their events and humiliating them. Most races prefer to give the athletes a very safe and good experience. Check for the people that might have cheated to get an award and leave it at that.
Let's examine this statement. They claim to "weed out the obvious cheaters". That's lovely, but apparently untrue. It took me all of two minutes to see a couple of implausible results. Call me cynical, but a sub-1:00 second half, complete with missing the 30k mat seems a little unlikely to me. Same for the two runners who didn't register at the start and got to the midway point at 52:xx. Let me be clear - it's entirely possible that these are timing errors rather than a cases of cheating, but one way or another, I'm not sure what could be more "obvious" than a sub-world record half marathon, before removing or correcting these results. (As I write this, it's two full weeks since the race.) And for as long as these results remain in tact, there is a runner who should have gotten an age group award, who thinks that she came in 5th. Is that significant enough for anyone at the Philadelphia Marathon to give a damn?
We often talk about the democratization of running - how great it is because we all run on the same course regardless of our ability. And that's exactly why the suggestion that it's only cheating if you're fast is nonsense, and insulting to honest runners who do their best. I don't care if you're an elite, a middle-of-the-pack runner, or a penguin - the course is 26.2 miles. If a MOP guy like me gets the glory and the credit that the fast kids do, I have the same responsibility that they do. Suggesting otherwise is condescending and insulting on the part of the Philadelphia Marathon.
The assertion that "most races prefer to give the athletes a very safe and good experience" is a logical fallacy that obscures the issue. If I had to choose between a safe race or one that has accurate results, I'd certainly opt for the former. Everyone would. But I don't have to make that decision, as producing a safe race does not preclude the organizer from getting the results right, as has been proven by countless other race organizers.
The race official refers to not wanting to "humiliate" anyone. Believe it or not, I'm OK with that. (That's why the target of this post is not the runners, but the race organizers.) Though I have a history of embracing a binary moral code, I'm trying to take a more nuanced stance. I realize that sometimes good people make bad decisions. It's one of the reasons why I have not named names here, nor have I published my formerly popular roster of cheaters in NYC. And it's one of the reasons that I've actually credited people when they've admitted their mistakes. This post is not designed to call out any runners. My lack of desire to humiliate anyone is exceeded only by my lack of desire to see someone's name in the results if they didn't complete the course. Despite what the folks in Philly are suggesting, simply removing the names from the results is not exactly the same as a public flogging in the town center. It is, however, fair and respectful to the rest of the field.
I've never been shy about criticizing New York Road Runners, but let's give credit where credit's due. Before I could compile the list of obvious cheaters at this year's ING New York City Marathon, NYRR removed them from the results. Presumably at considerable expense, NYRR has placed timing mats at every mile in Manhattan and the Bronx in an attempt to weed out course cutters, and therefore deliver accurate results. In other words, they're doing their job. I would hope that the organizers at the Philadelphia Marathon would do the same.