Over 3,000 people were disqualified from the Mexico City Marathon last week for allegedly cutting the course. Unlike other major races, however, competitors weren’t tempted by better times, but Facebook likes and a commemorative medal.
Each year since 2013, marathon finishers have received a medal shaped like one of the letters in “Mexico.” The awards are part of a ploy to garner interest in the race so it can earn gold level status with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which would place it on the same status level as prestigious races such as the Boston and New York City Marathons. This year, the finisher’s medal was the coveted final “O,” meaning athletes who completed all six races had the chance to round out their collection. Apparently, the combination of the chance to spell out the host country’s name in hardware and snag finish lines selfies motivated many of the 3,090 people disqualified based on time inconsistencies—accounting for almost 10 percent of finishers.
“From a marketing standpoint, it’s been a total success,” race director Javier Carvallo told ESPN. “But it has created some problems.”
Last year 5,806—nearly one in five—racers were disqualified for cheating. This year, Carvallo vowed to take steps to eradicate cheating, including selling replicas of all six medals to runners and non-participants alike. Initially, his efforts seemed to have been somewhat effective: the trend was down nearly 47 percent from last year, city sports director Horacio de la Vega said in a news conference. But, according to Derek Murphy of race watchdog site Marathon Investigation the number of disqualifications could actually be closer to 5,000.
Ironically, many offenders were caught by their fellow social media users. Facebook watchdog group “¿Ya se cansaron?" (Have you tired yet?) posted photos of suspects, including bibbed “runners” standing on the side of the course waiting to hop on at the 20 kilometer mark. They told ESPN that most of their catches came from suspicious friends and followers of the course cutters.
Despite the high number of cheaters, the Mexico City Marathon still has a shot at bumping up its current IAAF Silver Label to Gold. While the IAAF cites parameters such as strict anti-doping methods and international broadcast capabilities as qualifications for earning the distinction, requirements for curbing course cutting are absent. In other big races, cheating is relatively rare—for example, only about 50 of the 50,530 finishers in the 2014 New York City Marathon were reportedly disqualified for cheating, and most of those were accidental.
While it’s impossible to know how many people have a complete MEXICO hanging on their walls, officials noted that 925 people managed to earn their set legitimately.