The marathon is surely the most draining of all sports: Pheidippides, the ancient Greek soldier who originally completed the distance, collapsed and died on the spot after racing to Athens to give news of the battle of Marathon. With this in mind, it is perhaps a tribute to the marathon’s Corinthian purity of heart that, in an age of mass participation, more people don’t simply cheat. Because cutting the odd corner seems to be easier than you’d think.
This week, 69-year-old Anthony Gaskell was due to receive a plaque after running the fastest-ever time by a pensioner in April’s London marathon. Gaskell will not now be honoured after it emerged he had taken a shortcut during the race, climbing over a barrier where the course doubles back on itself at Tower Bridge and cutting out 10 miles.
How could this have happened? This year the 26-mile London marathon course was policed by 120 stewards, a small platoon of race referees and, of course, one million spectating tourists, family members and Lycra fetishists. Despite which, Gaskell’s very visible form of urban distance-shrinkage – leaping over a fence – seems to have passed without comment.
Other corner-cutters have planned more meticulously. In January, almost a third of the top 100 finishers in the Xiamen marathon in China were disqualified for, among other things, travelling sections of the race by car and hiring imposters to race in their place. Famously, Rosie Ruiz was the first woman across the line in the 1980 Boston marathon and gave a triumphant interview on national television, despite having caught a subway train to the finish and run only the last mile. In 1999, Sergio Motsoeneng finished ninth in South Africa’s 90km Comrades marathon after running in tandem with his doppelganger younger brother (they swapped places during toilet stops and were caught after post-race photos showed the pair in different watches).
It is open to speculation how much of this kind of thing goes undetected. Gaskell denies cheating, saying he took the shortcut simply because of an injury and never claimed to have finished. His act of course-shortening (which would have meant he had run the second half of the race at better than world record pace) only emerged because he was about to be given an award. For the amateur marathon-shrinker, the temptation would clearly be there; although with nothing more than kudos on offer, it is hard to think of a more apposite definition of only cheating yourself.