Johannesburg - A veteran athlete who recorded a near world-record pace for a 26km section of the 2013 Comrades Marathon is under suspicion of cheating, an expert said on Monday.
“I have identified at least 23 suspicious results - some are stronger cases for cheating than others - but the single individual I highlighted is by no means the only cheat,” University of Witwatersrand statistician Mark Dowdeswell said.
“Each of these cases should have been scrutinised in detail by the KZNA (KwaZulu-Natal Athletics) officials.
“In fact, my original report to them was provided as an exemplar of the sort of evidence that could be accrued as a result of careful examination of intermediate timing.”
Dowdeswell said he reported the suspicious cases to the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) and the KwaZulu-Natal Athletics (KZNA) on June 18 last year, just over two weeks after the race.
The CMA maintained the cases fell under the jurisdiction of the KZNA body. To date no disciplinary action had been taken, by either the CMA or KZNA, against the alleged offenders. Both organisations said due process was being followed to resolve the issues.
“According to the KZNA, only race officials can review the evidence and decide whether or not to prosecute implicated parties.”
Dowdeswell, a seven-time Comrades finisher, said he came across these exceptional findings through his analysis of the timing data available to the public on the Comrades Marathon's website.
“I plotted the split differences against the finish times and I noticed two things. Very few runners, just 66 out of well over 10,000 in 2013, ran negative splits (running a faster second half than first half of the ultra marathon).
“And there appeared to be some outlying points suggesting a very small handful of runners ran big negative splits, the biggest of these being an exceptional one hour 39 minute (1:39) negative split.”
Besides the start and finish, Dowdeswell said he looked at data from the four timing mats from the 2013 race, and the particular runner in question had not registered times on two of the mats.
The findings revealed the runner had averaged approximately eight minutes 35 seconds (8:35) per kilometre for the first half of the 89km race. For the second half, the runner improved to approximately 6:06 minute per km, which seemed a clear indication of suspicious activity.
Dowdeswell found the runner had produced a similarly suspicious result in the 2009 race.
“The figures seem even more suspect after I discovered this pattern of behaviour had occurred with this particular athlete before. During the 2009 Comrades, the same individual also missed a timing mat at Winston Park on the down run (in between the mat at Drummond and the mat at Cowies Hill).”
The runner took one hour, 13 minutes and 13 seconds (1:13:13) to complete the 26km segment from the Drummond timing mat to the Cowies Hill mat.
The time was 19:10 faster than that of race winner Stephen Muzhingi and his 2:49 per km pace was just five seconds slower than world-record pace for the half-marathon distance.
“It beggars belief that anyone would come close to doing this over 26km, albeit largely downhill, after first running more than a marathon, especially an athlete in their late fifties. The only explanation for these facts is that this person cheated, most likely through the use of a vehicle.”
CMA and KZNA were not immediately available for comment.