Running and Cheating

Coe and Ovett

I love running, and the history of my race times for 10k’s, half-marathons, marathons and other random distances is all laid out through the internet, should anyone care. I’ve entered many races, and from time to time found myself unable to run due to injury, or with some clashing engagement. Sometimes you may be able to return your number to the organiser, who, perhaps for a small fee, can reassign it to another runner at your direction. But frequently this is not allowed, or the deadline to do this has expired. So it seems harmless enough, charitable even, to simply give your number unofficially to another runner – after all, the race may be sold out. And half marathons can cost upwards of £30 to enter.

But if you give your number to a slower runner, you’ll get a disappointing time against your name. Worse, if they are faster, you’ll get a great time which you haven’t earned, of which you’re not capable, and may have to face the congratulations or suspicions of fellow runners who notice it. My running history shows a wide range of performance stretching from poor to average. But it is mine, and it is true. This is why I have never given away my race number, or taken over anyone else’s. I don’t want to be a cheat. In a world of bullshit, some things should be kept pure.

But it’s easy to say that when nothing depends on my performance besides personal pride. At the elite end of the field, if an athlete can summon just a 1% improvement in his or her time – perhaps using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping – that translates to the length of the home straight in the 10,000 metres. That could easily be the difference between gold and fourth. We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes and their trainers are prepared to break the rules in pursuit of glory.

The athletics heroes of my (relative) youth were Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, who presided over a golden age of British middle-distance running in the late 1970s and early 1980s: between them they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. They broke a total of seventeen world records in the 800 metres, mile and 1500 metres.

In his fascinating book on the rivalry between these two athletes, ‘The Perfect Distance’, Pat Butcher attempts to address the suspicions which Coe and Ovett inevitably attracted with their astounding performances. This is what Coe said:

‘I used to hear those rumours: “Oh, he goes to Switzerland, to Italy, for his blood.” I used to laugh it off, and Steve [Mitchell] and Malcolm [Williams] were mainly with me in Switzerland. I’m afraid it’s the sadness of sport. This is where you’ve got to be so careful about pointing fingers at people making big breakthroughs, because only in public terms is it a big breakthrough. In reality, you’ve been slogging away, mile after mile, weight after weight, ten years at a time.’

Not quite a denial, is it? Here is Ovett’s take:

‘I suppose when we were knocking records off left, right and centre people must have thought, What the hell’s going on here with these two? But I can put my hand on my heart, and on my children’s lives, that I never took an aspirin or a paracetamol at any stage in my career. I was frightened to death of doing a thing like that, and I’m very proud that I didn’t. So, you know, they can say what they like because I know the true facts.’

When read literally, despite the chilling decision to involve his children, this statement falls short of being a complete denial of taking performance enhancing drugs, and doesn’t address blood doping at all. The truth about drugs may be that they themselves don’t know: it would make sense to employ a ‘don’t ask’ policy with their scientists and nutritionists to enable them to believe themselves clean. However, it is unlikely that blood doping – which involves removing a pint of blood about a month before the event, then reintroducing it before race time to supercharge performance – could have taken place without their knowledge. I’d like to believe that Coe and Ovett were clean: they were my heroes. But their statements do not dispel the doubt.

Nor is cheating confined to the elite. There have been many instances, for example, of lesser mortals – often running for charities – cheating in the London Marathon: participants who, for example, run the first half in about two hours, only to then disappear from the timing mats until they are pictured beaming with their medal at the finish line at a time suggesting they ran the second half in near world record time. Typically they have simply turned left after crossing Tower Bridge and killed a little time before sauntering over the finish line.

Since the modern London Marathon began in 1981, one of the most regular celebrity runners – and now the most notorious – was the predatory and prolific sex offender, broadcaster Jimmy Savile.  He claimed to have run hundreds of marathons.  Before and after his death, and posthumous disgrace, there was much speculation in the running community about whether he had really done so, or whether he had cheated, perhaps by taking rides between photo opportunities.  Some runners offered anecdotal evidence of having overtaken him several times during the race while he had never passed them in return.

Jimmy Savile

Of course, set against his many serious crimes, this matters not at all.  But I found the question wouldn’t go away, and until recently, to answer it would require more research than I had time or energy for: the London Marathon results for the early years were confined to dusty libraries and ancient newspaper listings.

 

But a while ago the organisers of the London Marathon created a results database to celebrate the first one million finishers of the London Marathon, and it became possible to search online all results since the race was founded.  This has enabled me to carry out the research with the economy of effort better suited to a marathon runner.  So here it is.

Jimmy Savile’s London Marathon Times
Year Age Time
1981 54 4.08.28
1982 55 3.46.23
1983 56 3.33.59
1984 57 3.43.56
1985 58 4.02.00
1986 59 4.13.07
1987 60 3.46.14
1988 61 3.49.22
1989 62 3.49.52
1990 63 3.57.27
1991 64 4.12.37

 

Savile ran the London Marathon for each of its first eleven years, until he was 64 years old.  He is not shown in any results after 1991.  One caveat is that these years didn’t have the benefit of chip timing, nor the timing mats at 5k intervals which make it difficult to cheat the course.

I’ll admit that I took a look at this hoping to nail the guy, perhaps by finding a freakishly good time, or extreme variations.  But to my disappointment I couldn’t find much of a story here.  These times have the ring of truth about them: not so good they’re unbelievable, but consistent with a recreational runner of a reasonable standard.  His best times are only slightly outside the current (fairly demanding) “good for age” times for the Virgin Money London Marathon.  His 1987 time, for example, is only 74 seconds outside the mark.

One reason for scepticism about his times has been his assertion that he didn’t need to train for marathons: he claimed that he just turned up and ran.  Galling though this might be to runners slogging through their training programmes, if you run in as many races as Savile claimed to, that can itself be sufficient training to produce a respectable performance.

And Savile had an extremely high profile – it is difficult to imagine him slipping in and out of the race unnoticed. There is no credible evidence of cheating, and on this occasion – only – we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Coe and Ovett, though?  I think the jury’s still out.

 

Postscript:  after I put a link to this story on Chiltern Harriers’ Facebook page, a fellow Harrier posted this:

“Much as I hate to defend him I ran most of the London Marathon with, or close to, Jimmy Savile in 1983 although he pulled away and beat me by a few minutes in the end.”

I found in the results for that year that the runner in question did indeed finish about eight minutes behind Savile.  As this was the year of Savile’s fastest London Marathon time (3.33.59) this suggests to me that his other results are also likely to be genuine.  It seems that not all marathon runners are good people.

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2 thoughts on “Running and Cheating

  1. Hi Rik

    Can’t get on line to post a proper comment but loved this last ramble if only because marathons might have been the only honest thing Saville did! I agree with your conclusions about Coe and Ovett – very ambiguous comments but understandable in a way.

    Love Sue

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  2. Thanks Sue. Yes, for Coe and Ovett, I suspect at the time if you thought everyone else was doing it, you’d feel like a chump if you didn’t.

    Like

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