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Marathons boom in China, hired guns too


Spot the fraudsters

Last year there were over 300 marathons held in China and that is expected to almost double this year. But some members of China’s growing middle class have discovered an easier route to cover the 26 miles – hire people to run for them.

During a half-marathon held in Xiamen last month, two runners suffered heart attacks and died during the race. It was soon discovered that one of the victims was wearing a number registered to somebody else. TVB News interviewed one other ‘substitute’ runner who said that some participants seek out accomplished athletes like herself and hire them to compete on their behalf. The ‘client’ then assumes credit for their substitute’s performance, allowing the fraudster to enter future marathons with a more favourable starting position.

That said, many others do it for vanity – sharing pictures of their “accomplishment” through social media, posing with their certificate of completion, and enjoying the kudos it brings.

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily noted one real-world application of this scam. Students, it says, can present a completed marathon certificate for extracurricular credit, which might help their applications for university or future careers.

Indeed this practice has become common enough that the Track and Field Association of China has stepped in to prevent competitors of under 20 years of age from claiming completed marathons as an extracurricular activity.

But while some registered marathon runners are hiring substitutes, others are selling their positions in the race. Some runners no longer want to enter the race when the week comes, so they sell their registration. In September last year, registrations for the Beijing marathon were being sold for five times the original entrance fee, at over Rmb1,000 ($144).

Yan Xinning, a marathon runner, told state broadcaster CCTV that quota transferring is pretty common. More of a problem: he reckons that for some marathon races more than half of the runners use illegal replacements. Yan believes there should be a foolproof verification system to clamp down on the malign practice.

The online trading of marathon registrations has had some peculiar consequences, mind you. At the marathon in Shenzhen the leading female athlete was in fact a man, and at the deadly dash in Xiamen there were a number of substitutes that were likewise of the wrong gender that crossed the finish line.

The substitute runner who spoke to TVB News reported, “On the day I ran, the inspectors only made sure that there was a number on your shirt where a number should be. There really was no attempt to confirm whether you were the person who registered.”

With pollution in Chinese cities remaining well above dangerous levels of toxicity (see Talking Point), perhaps some runners are making a common sense choice: hire a double and claim the accolades, rather than run themselves and suffer the consequences for their lungs.

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