Durban - The KwaZulu-Natal Athletics Association has flagged 31 Comrades Marathon athletes for allegedly cheating – all apparently in the middle to back half of the field.
The association has sent them letters instructing them to attend disciplinary hearings over the next few weeks.
Five other runners have pleaded guilty and have handed back their medals. They are all considered middle- to back-pack runners.
An investigation of the athletes was speeded up over the past week after seven-time Comrades finisher, Mark Dowdeswell, a mathematical statistics lecturer at Wits University, was interviewed by online radio station RunTalk SA recently.
Officials looked at suspicious split times in the past two races and uncovered cheating among runners in the 93-year-old race. Some of the allegations stem from complaints from other runners.
Norrie Williamson, an International Association of Athletics Federation technical official, said the alleged offences ranged from cutting the course short, running with someone else’s number to bringing the sport into disrepute and unsportsmanlike behaviour.
Sello Mokoena, president of KZN Athletics (KZNA) refused to speak to the Daily News about the disciplinary hearings, saying he did not want to “prejudge” anyone.
Dowdeswell had made the discovery after he compared the data for how many athletes had run negative splits – faster times in the second half of the race – with those who did not.
From data available on the Comrades website, he calculated the times of all the runners who took part in last year’s race at the half-way mark and their times from there to the finish, and did a comparison.
He discovered there were at least 20 athletes who ran suspiciously faster times in the second half after missing timing mats spread across the route. Athletes run with an electronic tag.
Dowdeswell said there were 32 people who missed timing mats last year. Nine of those finished after the 12 hour cut-off time but 23 finished and were awarded medals.
But it was the feat of one particular Durban runner – a back of the pack athlete – that piqued Dowdeswell’s interest. The 59-year-old, who missed two timing mats, had managed to run quicker splits in some sections than the professionals in both the 2013 and 2009 races.
Dowdeswell wrote a report in June on his findings, using the Durban runner as an example of possible wider cheating, and sent it to the Comrades Marathon Association and KZNA to be investigated.
The runner, who has run for clubs in Phoenix, Shallcross, Queensburgh and Pinetown, completed his 20th Comrades last year, earning himself a prestigious double green number.
Dowdeswell said the runner’s negative splits in the 2013 and 2009 races were “incomprehensible”.
“When I first began looking at the data I had some idea of what to expect. I was expecting most people to get slower and in fact the results do show that. A very small fraction of people do run a negative split at Comrades,” he said.
“What did surprise, however, was seeing that there was a smaller range of people that ran (at) extremely big negative splits. Some of them ran an hour-and-a-half faster.”
Dowdeswell said he initially thought the data for the Durban runner was wrong.
“So I went back and identified what race number it corresponded to and I pulled that individual’s timing mat and general results and the numbers were mind boggling,” he said.
For the 2013 race, the athlete ran a time of 6.08.07s from Durban to the Drummond timing mat – with 44km to go. From there his tracking chip was not recorded at the Camperdown timing mat and the Polly Shortts timing mat which lie between Drummond and the finish in Pietermaritzburg.
He was timed at the finish line at a time of 10.36.30s – running a negative split of one hour and 39 minutes, which according to Dowdeswell was the biggest negative split of any runner on the day.
Dowdeswell said he then looked at the runner’s Comrades history, and the 2009 results popped out as very suspicious.
The runner’s negative splits between the Cowies Hill and Drummond timing mats meant he had run faster than Stephen Muzhingi, who won the race, and Leonid Shvetsov, who came second.
In fact, according to Dowdeswell the runner’s pace of 2m 49s over that 26km stretch is a few seconds behind the world record pace of 2m 44s for a half marathon.
“The athlete covered this distance in 1:13:13 at an average pace of 2m 49s/km, failing to record a time at one intermediate timing mat. This was the fastest recorded split for this section of the course by any runner on the day,” he said.
“The next two fastest splits were by Leonid Shvetsov – in 1:32:01 at an average pace of 3m 32s/km – who subsequently finished second overall and Stephen Muzhingi in 1:32:23 at an average pace of 3m 33s/km who won the race.”
He finished the 2009 race at a time of 9.51.38s.
Dowdeswell believes that the runner got into a car in the Pinetown area and someone drove him to a certain point on the route where he rejoined the rest of the Comrades pack.
“I can’t understand why anyone would do this. We are not talking about a runner who is trying to win some money,” he said. “I suspect that he was cheating for the respect of friends and family and peers.”
Williamson said the number of people found to have been cheating was just a fraction of the 13 000 runners who took part in the Comrades Marathon every year.
He said the athlete flagged in Dowdeswell’s report was one of the 31 runners being sent letters. The process of getting the athletes to disciplinary hearings was arduous, he added.
Williamson said they hoped to conclude the disciplinary hearings within the next six weeks.
“Every athlete will get the opportunity to put his case forward and will be allowed to have a representative. It will be a similar hearing like those in a normal court,” he said. “It is part of the process and all 31 will face the same process.”
Williamson said that the issue of cheating was a problem facing running associations all over the world.
“There is not one timing company using chips or any other system that will give a 100 percent guarantee that they will record every athlete that crosses over one of their mats,” he said.
“There are various reasons why runners are not recorded at mats such as them changing takkies or going to use the toilet at one end and coming out on the other end.
“One must remember that not everyone that misses the mat is a cheat.”
Dave Dixon, chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.