Marathons have always had a handful of cheaters. But close to 5,000 cheats in a single marathon – that defies belief.
Mexico City officials are now contending with the uncomfortable fact that more than 15 percent of the runners who crossed the finish line in the annual marathon on Aug. 27 didn't actually run the entire 26.2 miles – or even most of it, for that matter.
“They got into the race between the middle ... and the last 5k,” said Javier Carvallo, the marathon’s director. They cheated “just to cross the finish line and get a medal. It is crazy.”
In all, 5,806 of the 28,000 people who finished the race were disqualified. Of those, roughly 1,000 started the race but didn’t finish, Carvallo said. The rest took a short cut.
The scandal dwarfs allegations of fraud at other marathons.
“I have not seen anything approaching these numbers before,” Derek Murphy, founder of the website Marathon Investigation, said in an email. “I estimated that roughly 400 runners cut the course in the 2016 Honolulu Marathon. This was way worse.”
The deceit was first noticed among locals, who started a Facebook page dedicated to exposing the cheating. In addition to runners starting the race at the midway mark, the Facebook page alleged that runners exchanged bibs and took public transportation between checkpoints.
When Murphy learned of the allegations, he started analyzing the results. He said initially he thought marathon officials had made a mistake and disqualified some runners unfairly. “But after thorough analysis, I believe the vast majority of those that were disqualified did not run the entire course,” said Murphy, who publicized the findings on his website.
The Mexico City marathon had 11 checkpoints – one at the starting line, one at the finish and nine along the entire route. If the runner missed three or more checkpoints, he or she was disqualified, Carvallo said. And if the runner missed one or two checkpoints, the judges checked their times to see if they were feasibly possible.
Part of the reason the cheating gained widespread attention was because marathon officials initially included all of the people who crossed the finish line in the official results – as opposed to first disqualifying the suspect runners and then publishing the results. The disqualified runners are no longer included in the official tally.
Of those who were disqualified, around 1,300 posted times fast enough to qualify to run in the prestigious Boston Marathon. The Boston Athletic Association said it would not accept disqualified runners and would “double check” the times of those runners who did qualify.
One photo emailed to Murphy shows a male runner wearing two bibs for "Maria" and "Eduardo." It was also featured on the CazaTramposos Maratón Cdmx 2017 Facebook page.
Qualifying for the Boston marathon may account for some of the cheaters. As for the others, psychologists attribute the motivation to the desire for social affirmation, the adrenaline rush of cheating, and the lack of punishment if caught, among other explanations. (As of now, those people who were disqualified can still run in next year’s Mexico City marathon.)
“There is probably this kind of risk versus reward process going on,” said Adrienne Langelier, a sports psychology consultant. “Probably what they are thinking is, ‘what are the odds I’m going to get caught?’”
(Case in point: former Mexican presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo won the Berlin Marathon in his age category in 2007, only to be later exposed for taking a short cut.)
Carvallo attributed the mass fraud to a marketing strategy the marathon started in 2013. For six consecutive years, runners who complete the race receive medals that spell out “Mexico.” In 2013, the medal had the letter M, in 2014 the medal had the letter E, and so on. This year, the medal had the letter “C.”
Carvallo said the idea was to inspire runners to do the marathon for six years in a row. The problem was that at some point people wanted the medal but didn’t want to run the whole race.
“We thought we were creating a good marketing strategy, meaning that it is nice for all runners to do the marathon and get the word ‘Mexico,’” he said. “Without knowing, without wanting to, we created a monster.”