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Marathon Cheating, from Course Cutting to Proxy Running to…Shoes?

24 Feb, 2020

By: Michael Popke

A recent Wired.com profile of Derek Murphy, founder of MarathonInvestigation.com, has once again placed a spotlight on the rampant cheating that occurs in distance running events.

“Endurance races have proliferated in recent years,” wrote Gordy Megroz. “Globally, about 1 million people run marathons each year, up from about 500,000 in 2001. And with that explosion in participation seems to have come a rash of cheating. In September 2018, more than 5,000 runners were disqualified from the Mexico City Marathon for course cutting. Just two months later, 258 runners at a half marathon in Shenzhen, China, were disqualified after traffic cameras and photographers caught them cutting through bushes. [In April] three runners were disqualified from Boston, one for recruiting a faster competitor to run as a proxy (known in racing as a mule) and two for forging their personal-best certificates to meet the Boston Marathon’s qualification standard. Murphy argues that his work helps understaffed race officials catch the cheating that seems to have become endemic in the sport.”

Indeed, a perusal of recent headlines on MarathonInvestigation.com’s home page reveals that cheating takes place at events all over the country.

The breadth of marathon cheating recently took a new twist, though, with the presence of the Nike’s prototype“Air Zoom Alphafly Next%” shoe — a successor to the “Vaporfly” introduced in 2016 that helped runners break records at a pace similar to how low-drag and water-repellant swimsuits such as Speedo’s LZR Racer® helped swimmers rewrite the record books in the late 2000s (before they were banned).

Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge completed a full marathon in Vienna, Austria, last October in less than two hours — 1 hours, 59 minutes and 40.2 seconds, to be exact — and set off debate about whether the shoe should be legal. Prior to that race, no marathoner had ever broken the two-hour mark.

“The [“Alphafly”] shoes are thick-heeled with spring-like carbon fiber plates in the midsoles, which help to push energy back into an athlete’s stride, according to CNBC.com. “The new version is said to be even more beneficial to a runner than the 2016 Nike ‘Vaporfly’ shoe.”

For its part, Nike says technology does not provide an unfair advantage. “It’s simply using the same materials that go into a shoe and putting them together in an innovative way that allows the athlete to do their very best in a safe way,” Nike CEO John Donahoe told CNBC.

In late January, World Athletics (the track and field governing body formerly known as IAAF) gave its blessing for runners to wear “Alphafly” prototypes, “even though it acknowledged … shoe technology poses a risk to the sport,” according to San Diego’s NBC-TV affiliate.

“I do think as a governing body they need to start thinking about the shoe as the piece of equipment,” Shawn Hoy, vice president of show manufacturer Saucony’s global product, told The Washington Post. “It’s no different than a golfer’s clubs or a tennis player’s racket. There have to be parameters within which those products are created. Otherwise there is in an unfair advantage in the footwear. Having said that, there’s nothing particularly fair about elite running. If you’re a Nike runner, you’ve got advantages that a Saucony runner doesn’t have. If you’re a Saucony runner, you’ve got advantages an unsponsored runner doesn’t. If you can train at altitude in Kenya, that’s a little different than being able to train in Providence, Rhode Island. I think the fairness conversation has also become kind of an unfortunate sidebar in this whole thing. … But the genie is out of the bottle, and now we’re trying to put it back in. It’s just leading to a messy conversation.”

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