You may not have heard, but there is storm brewing in American marathon running circles. It relates to a minor celebrity by the name of Mike Rossi - a former host of a 1980s TV music show and DJ on a Philadelphia-based country music radio station.
Last month, the 47-year-old Rossi completed the Boston Marathon in a fairly respectable 4:01. So what? You may ask. Well, it doesn’t relate to the race itself, but how he actually qualified for Boston.
You see, the Boston Marathon holds a very special place in US running. Aged 118, it is the world’s oldest annual marathon and America’s most cherished mass participation event. The tragic bombings of 2013 only tightened the nation’s collective embrace of Boston. But to take part in the race, runners must meet strict qualifying standards. For Rossi, the age standard was 3:25, which he apparently beat with a clocking of 3:11 in the Lehigh Valley Race in Allentown, Pennsylvania the previous September – 50 minutes faster than he managed in Boston.
Suspicions over Rossi’s qualification might never have surfaced had he not firstly made headlines for getting into a heated dispute with his children’s school principal for taking them away for three days to support their Dad in Boston during term time. The publicity aroused the attentions of fellow runners from the Philadelphia area. They were surprised that a man who had only taken up running two years earlier aged 45 was able to run such a respectable time of 3:11, particularly when none of his other recorded times indicated he would be capable of such a run.
Indeed in a 5k just two months prior to Lehigh Valley Marathon, he raced at an almost identical pace over a distance less than an eighth of the 26.2mile distance. It was also raised that unlike many major city races, Lehigh only chip times runners at the start and finish and not at any intermediate points.
Furthermore, as at most mass running events, there was a photographic company capturing runners’ images throughout the event. It is alleged that the company had an average of 12 pictures of each runner battling their way through the race, but for Rossi, the only image captured was at the finish line.
Of course, Rossi has dismissed the allegations as completely false and put his huge drop in performance down to injury. The cynics would say ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’
Cheating in running always has been treated with absolute disdain at all levels. For the elite, doping is the biggest sin. But at the grass roots, taking shortcuts or lying about completing a race are treated with equal revulsion.
It is part of what separates running from many other sports. From Premier League to the Sunday League, footballers try to con their way to penalties, free kicks and throw-ins and little is thought of it. Perhaps only golf is on a par with running when it comes to its contempt for cheating.
Yet, it does happen. The most famous of all also happened in Boston back in 1980, when unheralded New Yorker Rosie Ruiz won the race in the third fastest time ever in only her second ever race, knocking 25 minutes off her previous best with 2:31. Yet, none of the other leading female runners, nor race officials, nor television crews had been aware of her throughout the race. Witnesses came forward saying they saw her join the race in the last half mile. She was stripped of the title three days later.
In the UK there have been other instances. At the 2014 London Marathon, personal trainer Jason Scotland-Williams and 74-year-old Frank Staples were both disqualified when they recorded massively quicker times over the second half of the race. Scotland-Williams even managed to cover the latter 13.1miles quicker than Mo Farah. Organisers suspicions were confirmed with both failing to register any times at the timing mats between halfway and the finish line and most likely skipped the barriers where the 13 and 22 mile markers cross on opposite sides of the road.
There was also the case of the bus-hopping Sunderland runner Rob Sloan (pictured) at the 2011 Kielder Marathon. He was seen boarding public transport at the 20 mile mark at the north-east event before emerging again near the finish to claim third place. He was later disqualified.
Of course, there is a measure of amusement to be had from each case, mostly in the sheer ineptitude of some cheats. But there also a great sadness. Running is a sport that is so richly rewarding for participants at every level.
Whether it is the record-setters at the front or those in the middle of the pack. All have to overcome doubts, fears, fatigue and – sometimes pain – to meet their individual goals. Running is good for the soul, no matter who you are or how fast you can run. It can be such a fulfilling personal experience, but never for those who cheat.