Durban - A veteran Comrades Marathon runner, who is accused of cheating after it was discovered he had managed to run quicker splits than the professionals, has slammed the allegations as a plot to “get him”.
The 59-year-old runner, who completed his 20th Comrades last year, on Wednesday denied that he had cheated, saying that despite his age he was still “a very good runner” who always ran quicker times in the second half of the races he had competed in. The Daily News has withheld his name.
“Anybody who has proof must come and tell me to my face,” he said. “Up till now, I have not heard from anyone.”
He has run for seven clubs over his 20-year Comrades career, but one of them, Pinetown and Districts Athletics Club, told the Daily News that he had quit after allegedly owning up to cheating.
His Comrades times came under the spotlight recently after his “incomprehensible” negative splits – faster times in the second half of the race – caught the eye of Mark Dowdeswell, a mathematical statistics lecturer at Wits University.
Dowdeswell had been going through data on the midway and finish times of all the runners on the Comrades website when he made the discovery.
He found that the runner had missed timing mats along the Comrades route in the 2009 and 2013 races and when he “re-appeared” had somehow managed to run the quickest splits over certain sections – better than all 13 000 runners, including those in the top 10.
Missing mats does not automatically mean a person has cheated, but he may not have passed directly over the mat.
In last year’s race the runner was timed at the finish line at 10.36.30 – running a negative split of one hour and 39 minutes, after missing the Camperdown and the Polly Shortts timing mats.
In the 2009 race, Dowdeswell established that the runner covered the 26km stretch from Cowies Hill to Drummond at a pace of 2 minutes 49 seconds per kilometre, just five seconds shy of the world record pace. It was faster than eventual winner Stephen Muzhingi, and runner-up Leonid Shvetsov.
Dowdeswell believes that the runner cheated by getting into a car in the Pinetown area and driving to a point further along the route where he joined the rest of the Comrades pack.
Gordon Battersby, treasurer of the Pinetown and Districts Athletics Club, said it was well known in their club that the runner cheated in the 2009 race.
“I think that it was peer pressure more than anything that made him do it at the time,” he said.
“If you don’t finish a race, or if you don’t finish in time, guys get ragged about it. Some guys can take it, others can’t. I think that is what happened to (the runner). It was pure peer pressure that made him cheat.”
Battersby said he had offered to go with the runner to the Comrades Marathon Association to admit to his guilt.
“But he declined. As far as I knew, the Comrades Association was aware of it at the time,” he said.
The runner did not renew his membership and joined another club the next year.
He at first denied that he had admitted to cheating to a member of his former club. However, when it was put to him that Battersby had informed the Daily News that he had in fact done so, he said:
“I think I... but I am not sure about that. I am not sure at the moment what I said (to them).”
When told that data showed him running a negative split of one hour and 39 minutes – the biggest negative split in the 2013 race – the runner said:
“I can’t say that. I need to look at (the time split) properly. I have to look at it properly.
“I have always been better in the second half. All my races I have been better (in the second half).”
He rejected claims that he may have cheated by getting into a car in the Pinetown area.
“You can’t get into a car in the Pinetown area. There is no way you can get into a car there,” he said.
He said that he had not heard from KZN Athletics (KZNA) about allegations of him cheating. He said he would be willing to answer questions about this if the association paid his transport costs.
The runner said he had been running for 23 years and no one had ever told him that he had cheated. Asked if had cheated during the 2009 race, he said: “I don’t know. I must look at the results.”
On why he left Pinetown and Districts AC, he said: “Their fees became too expensive. In fact, they are one of the most expensive clubs.”
Asked to explain how he had run such fast splits in 2013 and 2009 he said he did not need to explain it.
“Why must I explain it to you... If they say I have cheated tell them to come say it to my face. No one has spoken to me.
“Why don’t they come and speak to the guy who has cheated? Why must they go (to the press)... I am not worried about any of this. You can put it in the newspaper,” he said.
“I am a brave guy. I have always faced them, that is why no one can come up to me. But they look at me all the time.”
Asked why, he said: “Because I can ask them straight, ‘can you prove anything?’.”
Macdonald Chitja, chairman of the Comrades Marathon Association, said it was not up to them to comment as KZN Athletics dealt with the disciplinary process.
KZNA’s president, Sello Mokoena said all accused athletes should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
He did not want to comment on allegation of cheating by the runner, nor on claims that the athletics officials knew of his cheating as far back as 2009.
“We should certainly avoid anyone being subjected to trial by media,” he said.
“While emphasis should be placed on swift justice, expediency should not outweigh fairness to the accused,” he said.
Mokoena said cheating went against the values of the sport.
“Comrades Marathon is our premier event in KZN, as well as nationally. While for the elite, winning the legendary event is a lifetime goal, to the majority of runners the event is a test of character and human endurance.
“Cheating goes against all these values. Fortunately statistics show that a tiny minority will line up at the start, sing the national anthem and proceed to betray the Comrades Marathon spirit.
“Our message to Comrades runners this year is simple, ‘tough is what makes it’.”
The association has flagged 31 Comrades Marathon athletes – middle-to back pack runners – for allegedly cheating and 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.