Asijiki ('There's no turning back') - the 2018 Comrades slogan
Comrades cheats exposed: How runners crook the system
There's no turning back now if you haven't qualified for the Comrades – except if you are one of the cheats
Unscrupulous athletes are faking their entry times into the Comrades Marathon and many are getting away with it, a Times Select investigation has revealed.
Days from now, thousands of runners will test their mettle by racing from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in the Comrades Marathon on Sunday, the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon. All of them needed to run a standard 42.2km marathon in under five hours to qualify for the race.
But Times Select has learnt that some have entered false times to either get into the race or to improve their seeding, which gives them an effective earlier start time.
Three runners who spoke to Times Select on condition of anonymity admitted to either lying about their qualifying time or entering with unverified qualifying times. A fourth runner spoke about a cheating culture in his club.One runner said he felt justified in submitting a fake qualifying time because he had actually run a qualifying time but wasn’t wearing a timing-chip which would’ve recorded his result.
“I am aware that I am breaking the rules, but I feel justified because I ran a qualifying time but I was not wearing a chip. I then entered a time from a different marathon that I had run but altered that time so that it was a sub-five, even though for that particular marathon I did not run a sub-five.”
Another runner said he knew of two other athletes in his club who had cheated – but he had not reported them.
“We have a runner who was running three-hour half-marathons and then suddenly used a qualifying marathon time of 3:40 to enter the Comrades. That person now has a D-seeding.” A higher seeding can give a runner valuable minutes to make the 12-hour limit as well as other cut-offs along the way. This runner said a member of his club committee had volunteered to run in an athlete’s place so they could get a better seeding.
In a different case, three runners in the same marathon did not get official results for an unknown reason so they submitted the times they had recorded themselves, which were unverified, but these got them into the Comrades.
Three runners who ran the Kaapsehoop Marathon last year used those times to qualify for the Comrades. While they had qualified in the earlier race, their names were not included in the official Kaapsehoop results – yet the Comrades still accepted their entry times.
“We ran [the Kaapsehoop Marathon] and used that as our qualifying time,” one of the runners said. “Only later when I went back to check which seeding I got, I realised that our names were not on the official results from the marathon. This means, according to the system, that I did not run, and the Comrades took my entered time at face value, which does open it up to cheating.”
Athletics South Africa (ASA), the national governing body, said clubs had to verify athletes’ qualifying times.
“ASA is the custodian of all athletics in South Africa. As the club is the closest custodian to the athlete, it is the club’s responsibility to ensure athletes remain credible,” said ASA CEO Richard Stander.
Not every club follows this rule.Team Vitality, which has three of the largest clubs entered into the Comrades (Team Vitality Central Gauteng, Team Vitality Gauteng North and Team Vitality KwaZulu-Natal) confirmed it did not verify results of athletes.
“Vitality doesn’t verify the qualification times,” said Dr Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness at Discovery. “The timing of events is managed by race organisers. We do award Vitality points for participating in races. Most of this is done through our integration with various timing companies. With regards to the Comrades, the person entering the event will generally submit their qualifying time. This would need to be verified by the race organiser.”
Nossel said Team Vitality did not have access to the Comrades entries but verified results where they could in other races.
By contrast, the other two running clubs in the top five nationally said they had verified all qualifying times submitted by runners.
“Our club captain typically downloads all the race results for our club once a month. It’s thus easy to manually check the qualifying times,” said John Ansell, chairperson of the Benoni Northerns Athletics Club.Rand Athletic Club (RAC), in whose colours Bruce Fordyce won the Comrades, has 282 runners in this year’s race. It also checks each entry.
“As clubs we no longer enter the runners and have no idea who has entered the event, as they can do it themselves. The first time I see the list is when I verify, and I have challenged those times that did not look good,” said RAC secretary Vreni Welch.
Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) chairperson Cheryl Winn said 50% to 60% of entries were verified and the organisation also performed spot checks. She could not confirm how many of these verifications were automatic because the result had been captured by a chip-timing device, as opposed to manual verification. Winn said only ChampionChip results (the official timing device of the Comrades) are cross-referenced, while other times submitted from a timing device are open to spot checks.
Winn told Times Select the Comrades relied on the “honesty, integrity and fair competition” of athletes, adding that the “vast majority of people get that”.Yet it appears that many of the cheats are not even expecting to finish the Comrades. The athlete who was aware of cheating runners at his club said they knew they would not finish the race, but would still start on race day.
“They openly brag about it. They’ll say they got injured or whatever excuse. I haven’t confronted them because there’s no accountability in our club anyway.”
The other runner who entered a fake qualifying time also said he knew he wouldn’t finish.
“I know I probably won’t finish because my qualifying time wasn’t great as it was and experts say I would need to be faster to have a chance of finishing.”
The Two Oceans Marathon this year implemented a verification process in which clubs had to check qualifying submissions, though this was not mandatory.
“As this was the first year that the system was introduced, only runners who were physically invalidated by their clubs – either for not being members or for submitting incorrect qualifiers – were not permitted to run. Next year the process will be much stricter,” said Two Oceans spokesperson Leonie Mollentze.
The Comrades also used that system at one point, but Winn said the rule changed to allow individuals from smaller clubs and athletes with less resources the opportunity to also enter the ultra-marathon.
The current system makes the race accessible to all athletes, said Winn, not only to those who can afford to travel to compete in chip-timed races or even buy the timing device itself.
This year’s race has attracted the second-highest number of athletes in the event’s history: roughly 23,800 runners, who submitted just more than 21,000 qualifying times.