The Great Marathon Mystery: Why Do Runners Cheat?

by On Dec 17, 2014
The Great Marathon Mystery: Why Do Runners Cheat?

When media outlets break news stories about runners who have the audacity to cheat while attempting to win a marathon, what is your first reaction? Outrage? Anger? Maybe you feel sympathetic? As a student of human behaviour, you might wonder, "What made this person so desperate to win that they were willing to break the rules?"

After all, it's just a race; not a life-determining event. Unfortunately, cheaters are becoming an ever-present element of today's marathon racing scene and if you're reading this article, you are likely fascinated with the topic and want to know more about why they risk everything for a title, prize or fame.


Anthropologists have studied sporting events in pre-literate societies and found that the pressure to be victors was as strong centuries ago as it is today. Think of Roman chariot racers. Gladiators. South American ball games that required competitors to win or die. Time has passed and societies have become enlightened, but sadly, cheating in many types of athletic competitions has only gotten worse. Unfortunately, the once wholesome image of the sport has become tainted around the world.

In 1980, American Rosie Ruiz apparently used the subway to achieve her first place Boston Marathon win. In 1986, 24 U.S. top drawer competitors were disqualified for cheating, including Master Division all-stars. In 2009, 252 runners' times were disqualified for cheating during the Chicago Marathon and in 2010, a 69-year-old Londoner – Anthony Gaskell took a 10-mile shortcut to set a world record for his age group. Has cheating become an expected behaviour leading to widespead concerns by both competitors and event organisers? If the answer is yes, how far-reaching has this problem become?

How Runners Cheat

The most often-cited example of cheating during marathons involves taking physical shortcuts to reach goal lines, counting on the excitement and density of crowds along run routes to give cheaters time advantages before they are re-integrated with competitors near the finish line. Does this mean that runners intentionally undertake cheating schemes by mapping and plotting points at which they plan to deviate from legal routes? In some cases, this degree of coordination is too precise to think otherwise. Even master runners have been caught taking shortcuts using abbreviated street routes, pretending they are injured as a way to divert attention and then using these 'injuries' to their advantage. The subway plan hatched by Rosie Ruiz in 1979 borders on the audacious: how could she not have precisely timed her detour if she had no knowledge of specific train schedules and stops?

As CCTV equipment and other technology address marathon cheating, runners are becoming more inventive: Cases of runners switching jerseys embedded with RFID chips have been found, though RFID ground tag mats and other such equipment has levelled the playing field. But as long as there’s one cheating runner left on the planet, people will continue to wonder what’s driving their devious acts.

Why Runners Cheat

Is there something out of the ordinary in the DNA or psychological makeup of humans who behave dishonestly? Sadly, says Chicago Marathon organiser Bob Bright, a segment of competitive runners— usually in their 40s and 50s — become so obsessed with winning, they're willing to commit the ultimate act: cheating. Psychologists see cheating as natural extensions of contemporary human behaviour. If people are willing to cheat on spouses, tax returns and test scores to achieve personal gain, why not cheat when running a marathon?

Alternately, some marathon runners exhibit deep-seated aberrant behaviour: a pathological compulsion to cheat the system. Social scientists compare such behaviour to shoplifting: How often do you read about people engaged in retail theft who can afford to pay for the goods they've stolen? Unfortunately, some misguided people are driven to cheating by the sheer excitement of the act while others are driven by fame or prize money. Some, say experts, may simply be seeking the love and approval of others, or may have their sense of self-worth so damaged that only winning can bring temporary relief.

Are these people lacking in ethics and integrity, or do they simply feel no moral responsibility to follow rules? These are questions race organisers ask as they figure out ways to protect honest runners so they are rewarded with the honours they deserve.

The Great Marathon Mystery: Why Do Runners Cheat?

Photo Credit: 123RF

How Cheating Runners are Caught

The latest method of tracking and catching marathon cheaters is through the use of CCTV video camera surveillance footage captured along routes. Cheaters are also caught in the act by cell phones and cameras wielded by spectators lining the streets to cheer on competitors. Time stamps and locations don't lie and race observers are happy to chime in with images captured along marathon routes if they notice something's not right. The City of Chicago has been using video cameras to track cheaters for 30+ years. Nevertheless, surveillance and tracking have also become more sophisticated as international race planners develop intelligence networks of observers prepped with the names, photos and details of previous suspicious behaviour surrounding marathon runners who, in the past, were simply never caught.

As the marathon cheating dilemma grows more serious, international race coordinators are considering placing holograms on race bibs, employing graphic designs on garments that can't be replicated, as well as monitoring websites and forums where people try to sell their chipped bibs. There are also movements afoot to keep the locations of RFID-chipped timing devices placed along race routes secret so few people are aware of their exact locations. There are even plans in works by some marathon planners to install cadres of "snipers" along race routes: These monitors would be sequestered high above streets armed with military-grade binoculars to detect deviations from the official route.

Sad? Yes. But necessary.

No Society is Untouched by Cheating

The western marathon running scene has experienced no shortage of incidents where devious runners have taken route shortcuts. Still, the problem is not an isolated one and it has led to apologies as a result of jumping to conclusions too quickly.

A very recent incident in Singapore tells the story: In December 2014, organisations, people and media outlets have to issue apologies following a debacle that involved accusations of cheating during the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore. Given the hyper-vigilance of many concerned about cheating – from participants and organisers to spectators, accusations morphed into an outcry over "diversion points" that were actually sanctioned detours established to keep runners safe and avoid closed roads. Who's to blame for this panic-driven behaviour? Just about everyone is publishing an opinion, with journalists, bloggers, and social media users contributing the most.

Are there lessons to be learned here? Of course. First, the world must accept the fact that a segment of the population will try beating the system, but that doesn't mean jumping to conclusions before reasonable proof is presented. That's why the "innocent until proven guilty" principle is such an important aspect of just legal systems. Unfortunately, in the case of the SCMS dust-up, hyper-vigilance lead to assumptions bred from the suspicious world in which we live.

First, the world must accept the fact that a segment of the population will try beating the system, but that doesn't mean jumping to conclusions before reasonable proof is presented.

A Future of Cheating?

Social scientists believe that if one doesn't learn from history, people, societies and nations are doomed to repeat past mistakes. However, marathon planners around the world — and particularly in Singapore where running is a way of life for so many — are eager to put scepticism and cynicism to rest by building checks and balances into future marathon events, putting cheaters on notice that their behaviours won't be tolerated. Expect to see an expansion of CCTV equipment throughout cities. Anticipate marathon planners purposefully establishing running routes to take advantage of the most heavily monitored intersections.

But CCTV technology isn't the only way organisers will deal with cheaters: Mapping out routes that can't be conduits to shortcuts is also a deterrent. Says Boston Marathon's Guy Morse,

"You can't cut across town in Boston like you can in Chicago."

For cities like Singapore, wisely-mapped out marathon routes and the latest technology will make life difficult for those who strive to cheat the system.

But perhaps the most cutting-edge deterrent is the adoption of chip technology. Is this innovation completely foolproof? Sadly, no. In 2007, a former Mexican presidential contender – Roberto Madrazo won his age group at the Berlin Marathon because his chip showed he ran a time that was never before achieved by a human being! As it turns out, he skipped two checkpoints. During a marathon in China, runners thought they could outsmart technology by putting chips on other runners and a few cheaters jumped into cars to achieve personal bests.

Can this atmosphere be changed? The answer is yes, but not by adding more technological devices to thwart cheaters. Here's how things can change…

The One True Solution

There's only one way to literally and figuratively stop marathon cheaters in their tracks: Attack the problem at its root. Does this mean that every Singapore race is going to require psychologists attending to runners from start to finish? Not exactly — but here's how individuals passionate about this sport can become a greater force for good to help end this growing problem: Every Singapore runner must find ways to support fellow runners so there’s no incentive for them to cheat. This means listening. Talking. Having compassion. Forgiving.

You read that right. One person can make a world of difference simply by communicating with and staying sensitive to the feelings and issues experienced by fellow runners. Random acts of kindness, compliments, offers to help — each can be a catalyst, letting running buddies know that there are no judgments when it comes to friendship and empathy. Cheaters, unfortunately, hurt themselves more than they hurt others because they must live with consequences long after everyone they beat hangs up their running shoes. Can you be an agent of change? You bet. If you think someone with whom you run is so competitive that they are at risk of cheating, talk to them and find out what’s motivating their compulsion. Let others know that you will report suspicious behaviour and don’t be afraid to do so. Become an anti-cheating advocate for the sport you love to help make sure every marathon in which you participate is the fun, exciting event it is meant to be.

The Great Marathon Mystery: Why Do Runners Cheat?

Photo Credit: 123RF

In sum, continually ask yourself if there is anything you can do to keep the activity you love free of cheating. Don't be surprised to learn that you really can make a difference!

How do you think we can better prevent cheating in marathons? Share with us your views in the comments below!

Aidan is the Editor-in-Chief of RunSociety. With more than a decade of editorial and marketing experience working with over 1,124 writers. Aidan has also written for several popular websites reaching millions of readers. Recognised as an expert on the web, his focus is to oversee RunSociety’s Creativity Channel, spanning a wide range of inspirational and enriching topics daily to the running community.

Get in touch with him if you have something to say, or want to weigh in on an interesting topic at hello@runsociety.com.

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