Norrie Williamson
4 minute read
26 May 2012

Speed analysis will spot Comrades cheats

Norrie Williamson

JUST under 16 000 runners have qualified for the final registration process for next weekend’s 87th Comrades Marathon, which means about 14 500 will start the race next Sunday...

JUST under 16 000 runners have qualified for the final registration process for next weekend’s 87th Comrades Marathon, which means about 14 500 will start the race next Sunday.

The marathon has been called the “ultimate human race” and is said to give the runners an opportunity to challenge and take their bodies and minds beyond the bounds of their ken and imagination. It is no surprise, then, that the receipt of a Comrades medal for finishing the 89 km distance is held in respect and with pride.

So why do runners cheat?

“It ticks me off,” said one club chairperson over dinner recently. “These people [cheats] need to be banned from the race and the sport … for a long time.”

It was a view shared by a green-number runner. “It’s an abuse of trust. I would rather be physically abused than this. I would be first in line to report any runner I found to have cheated — not just in the race, but also with their claim of qualification.”

It is this reverence for the Comrades medal that has resulted in many cheats having been detected over the years, and the efforts to ensure that the Comrades medal remains a badge of credibility and pride are stronger each year.

There have been a number of high-profile incidents over the years. The most famous was probably the identical twins who swapped numbers down the route, but were caught through the comparison of photos and minor differences, including different coloured watch straps.

Then there was the would-be gold medallist who took a taxi to Kloof on the down run, but was weeded out not just by race monitors, but by the taxi driver.

Each year there are those who attempt to fool the public by claiming a medal.

There is an opinion that the only people they cheat are themselves.

“Not so,” says Peter Proctor the current chair of ­Comrades Marathon Association. “They cheat the spirit of Comrades, the history and intent of the event and everyone who has crossed the line — as well as those who attempted but failed through genuine effort.”

In recent years technology has been closing in on such cheats, but still the runners’ club, running partners and even friends and family, provide the necessary reports and confirmation in the greatest number of incidents.

“Each year there are advances that catch more people attempting to cheat, be that in qualification or on race day.

“Unfortunately this often comes after race day and then runners are approached even weeks after the event when they think they have got away with it,” continued Proctor

The introduction of a timing mat at the start records those who started the race and regular checks along the route monitor each runners’ progress. There are about 80 technical officials from around the country on the lookout for offenders trying to short-cut the route or missing a mat.

“There have been cases where someone has used a porta-loo at one of the checkpoints, going in one side and out the other and missing the recording, but we now monitor and secure these points so that is no longer possible by accident or intent,” said a senior technical official. “Much of the route is now monitored by cameras, videos and TV, and we have three referees from around the country watching the TV footage throughout the day.”

Given the on-air and off-air coverage of the race, there is a mammoth amount of detail available to the referees. When a runner arrives at the stadium his or her chip is picked up and there are two more referees dedicated to looking at each runner’s progress.

“The computer flags those that have failed to cross one of more laps and they may this year be approached at the finish to explain why they would not have been recorded at a certain place on the route and warned that further disciplinary measures may follow.

“Of course, even if they are not approached then, when evidence of any cheating is uncovered in the post-race analysis of results, due process follows.

“It may be a large task searching through 14 000 individual results, but thankfully the computer helps us to identify those who try to cheat, not just by missing results, but also by impossible and improbable performances over the whole route or between points.

“It’s a bit like the average speed cameras trapping drivers,” said the senior official.

“It may be hard work, but the reward is in knowing that the effort adds to the integrity of the race, the sport and the honour of those who finish the Comrades. Catching the cheats may not be pleasurable but it’s well worth the effort.”

For the thousands of runners who have put in months of effort and preparation this will be welcome news and an assurance that their efforts are recognised and to be lauded, just as their predecessors were in the very first race introduced by Vic Clapham in 1921.