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In Defense Of The Running Cheaters

Editor Jessie Sebor shares her thoughts on the cheater shaming going on in our sport.

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Previously unknown marathoners have been making headlines latelyand not for their accomplishments.

Running media has become rife with stories of alleged cheaters.

Last April, a photo of four runners wearing the same counterfeit Boston Marathon bib circulated online with calls to identify and expose the forgers. In November, a 31-year-old woman from Georgia was outed for shaving miles off the course in order to win the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon. And most recently, there was the “viral dad,” Mike, who wrote a letter to his children’s principal imploring the educator to excuse them from school to watch him run the Boston Marathon—only to be challenged as to whether his Boston qualifying time was legitimate.

Are these runners cheats? For the counterfeiters and the course cutter, the answer is yes. Mike’s case, however, is less certain—it depends upon who you ask. The Pennsylvania local maintains that he did in fact run the time he claimed. Outlets like Runner’s World, Gear Junkie and Philadelphia Magazine are more skeptical. Runner’s World published a 2,000 word analysis poking into Mike’s race times, which includes interviews from top running coaches, photos from Mike’s marathon and a full account of his racing history.

If you dig into the comments sections and message boards, the verdict according to most commentators is clear. In a thread you can find statements like:

“You cheated. You know it. Stop trying to keep your lie going.”

“Thanks for exposing this jerk.”

“Let’s get this cheating scum and take his kids away to boot!”

Keeping in mind that claims of his falsification are still completely unsubstantiated, let’s stop for a second and assume that Mike did falsify his finish time…does it really matter? Is it the media’s responsibility to uncover an average runner who made a poor judgment call? Is this news? Is it worth exposing a normal dad to this sort of online scrutiny?

The easy access of running data on the internet has taken what was once a small, dirty act and turned it into a mass shaming free-for-all. Want to dig into a runner’s life? There are plenty of sites for that. Platforms like Athlinks, MarathonFoto and Strava keep personal information public by default. And then there’s the stuff we choose share on social media and blogs that can be used for further mining.

Exposing cheaters is easier than ever—but I think its popularity is in a large part thanks to the growth of our sport. There are more runners now than at any other time in history, and perhaps there is a fear among long-timers that the purity of the sport will be populated by those you don’t understand its rules.

For running purists, cheating is an almost unforgivable crime—and it frustrates experienced runners when newbies don’t feel the shame of this as deeply as the long-time runners think they should. In turn, the compulsion is to make them feel it. As another commentator on said: “It would be nice if this went viral so that other people of the same mindset will think twice before cheating.”

The problem with this thinking is two-fold. First, it’s not the public’s or the media’s job to discipline fellow runners. Convicted cheaters should be disqualified by race directors and potentially barred from other races. In a perfect world, they should feel remorse for what they did—but no one can force them to experience that emotion. Second, and more importantly, public shaming ensures that the punishment does not fit the crime. The relative permanency of words published online prevents individuals from moving on from mistakes even if they’ve learned from them. Errors become public record that pop up in search fields.

Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done. This is likely something shameful, something private, something only the closest people to you know. Now imagine the story of your most mortifying error is the first item that appears in a Google search of your name.

What I’m trying to impress here is that cheating is bad, but cheater shaming is worse. The running media should avoid creating a fervor that leads to personal attacks on individuals—not feed into it.

What makes the running community so special is that we build each other up. We cheer for complete strangers as they sprint toward the finish line. We wave to the members of our tribe when we pass them sweating it out on the street. We offer sips of water to people we’ve never met before. We try to make other people’s lives better—not worse. Let’s focus on what running stands for and let the cheaters face the consequences of their actions not online but in their hearts.