The slow motion finish of the Berlin Marathon on Sunday, when debutant Dennis Kimetto failed to challenge his elder statesman training partner Geoffrey Mutai, who thus clinched the Marathon Majors’ half-million dollar prize for the 2011-2012 series, has inevitably given rise to a plethora of conspiracy theories.

It certainly looked odd. After a long surge in the third quarter of the race, which took the pair to within shooting distance of Patrick Makau’s world record of 2.03.38, the pace dropped dramatically in the final three kilometres, leaving the way open, it seemed, for the lanky Kimetto, at 28 a late arrival on the world marathon scene, to wheel up an 11th hour challenge to his mentor.

But it never came. Kimetto seemed content to stay a stride behind, which is where he finished, as Mutai breezed unchallenged down the finish straight, to win in 2.04.15, with Kimetto one second behind.

Cue outrage across marathon cyberspace, with accusations of race-fixing, and that Kimetto had been told not to threaten Mutai’s marathon purse. It was certainly disappointing, since when the potential record evaporated the expectation was of a grandstand finish, which never came.

What has been overlooked by those who may not have seen the whole race is that Mutai is the man who was right behind the pacemakers throughout the early stages of the race, and was also the man who initiated all the breaks when the pacers dropped out, successively at 21k, 30k then 31k. Then when he only had Kimetto for company, it was Mutai who strode into a five metre lead after 35k and though Kimetto rallied to within a stride by 40k, the expected challenge never came, and we got the curious spectacle of Kimetto shadowing Mutai through the finish line.

Following which Kimetto bent double with the effort (and I don’t think he was kidding), suggesting that he had already been at his limit in those final stages. But how many times have you seen someone ‘kill’ themselves to get past an opponent, often ending up flat out?

If it was a ‘fix’, then we have been here before, many times. Coincidentally there was a similar finish in Berlin 2003, when Sammy Korir did what many pacemakers have done in recent years (often to the extent of winning the race). Korir kept going, and gave his illustrious colleague Paul Tergat the biggest scare outside of a Haile Geb sprint, when Korir tracked Tergat right to the line, in much the same way as Kimetto did with Mutai, albeit Korir was five metres back. But at least, Tergat and Korir were, as we used to say, ‘eyeballs out’.

The ‘only’ prize then was victory and the world record, and it went to Tergat, at 2.04.55, with Korir a few strides and one second behind, 2.04.56.

But many people felt that Korir had let his famous compatriot win, or rather did not want to commit the fault of lésé-majesté, or in common parlance, disrespect. The Mutai-Kimetto situation could have been as simple as that, which would still make it disappointing. And leave it open to misinterpretation, and criticism.

There was little doubt in the Zurich Golden League 1999, when another couple of Kenyans were duking it out at the head of the steeplechase field. Bernard Barmasai had won the first four GL races, and was in contention for the gold bars which went with an undefeated run. When Christopher Koskei challenged Barmasai in the closing stages of the race, and looked like he had the beating of his colleague, Barmasai was seen to talk to Koskei, after which the latter relented, and Barmasai went on to win the race.

Though both athletes denied collusion, the then International Amateur Athletic Federation (the name has since been modified – to protect the guilty?) ruled that Barmasai (left) had brought the sport ‘into disrepute’, and though they allowed him to continue to race on the Golden League circuit, they made him ineligible to share in the jackpot.

Now all of the above reads uncomfortably like the situation which prevailed in the ‘pedestrian’ world of late 19th century athletics, when athletes would run under assumed names in different parts of the country (UK and USA), or simply run poorly in one race in order to get a better handicap in the next (since most meetings were handicap meets back then).

There were even those who would ‘throw’ races at the behest of betting syndicates; and pick up a better ‘bonus’ than victory might have afforded them.

And that, dear readers, is what led to the formation of the Amateur Athletics Association in 1880, a movement which spread across the world. And whose philosophy is followed by over 99% of those who ran in Sunday’s Berlin Marathon.


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7 Responses to BACK TO THE FUTURE?

  1. john bicourt says:

    More like 99.9 % Pat.

    Can’t really blame the athletes for what happened. It goes on everywhere. If Mutai stood to lose far more than Kimetto stood to gain by beating him then it isn’t surprising that an arrangement was agreed which no doubt would have included a private “bonus” to let Mutai win in the eventuality that Kimetto might possibly beat him.

    If they train together they are presumably in the same camp and presumably therefore with the same manager. Did they arrange this by themselves? Or was their manager involved? Who knows?

    Obviously, it sours the spirit of competition and looked appalling bad, a bit like “team orders” in F1 that we’ve witnessed in the past but from their own personal wealth perspective it’s easy to see why it happened and has happened in other races with others.

    Unfortunately for them it looked so obvious that no doubt the IAAF will have to investigate and it may well be that like the Barmasai case, Mutai will have to relinquish his prize and presumably also Kimetto?

  2. Craig Sharp says:

    I totally agree with John. Pat mentioned the old ‘pedestrian’ days, when the runners were competing for money. Just as they are now.
    Modern professionalism is good in many ways – but it has a natural down side, and the Berlin marathon may have been just that. One runner standing (?running) to gain much more than another had to lose. If it was a conspiracy – they should have done it ‘eyeballs out’ – then we wouldn’t be writing about it!! Yours in Sport.

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  5. joe connelly says:

    Based on the paces reported on the Science of Sport blog for each 5k section, I’m not convinced Kimetto and Mutai weren’t tapped out before the last 5k or so, even though it looks like they have more in the tank the last 200m. After the moves that occured 20k-35k (that 15k section was covered in 43:27, 4:40/mile, which is sub 2:02:30 marathon pace). I’m also not convinced that Kimetto had the confidence to go after Mutai, based on Mutai’s superior experience and stronger race history. Those guys train together, I could see Kimetto saying to himself, no way I can beat Mutai if we’re together the last kilo.

    Personally, even if there was an agreement in advance that Mutai gets the win I don’t have any problem with that. We see the same arrangement all the time in cycling, for example the TdF this year stage 17 I have no doubt Chris Froome could have bridged up to and perhaps past Valverde but it seemed that Team Sky had Froome dial down his effort so that Wiggins had help. I understand that there is a strategic difference between the overall context of one stage of the TdF vs one of the premier marathons of the world, but given that these two runners train together and may well be part of the same team (formal or informal) when you look at the bigger picture of locking up $500,000 vs not locking that up and ending up potentially with $0 it seems like an expected outcome.

  6. Joe Public says:

    Who cares??? Boo – Hoo, he let his teammate win… Same team/coach/manager = higher pay day… Sounds calculated and smart to me – now they both win… It wasn’t a stranger or competitior.

    Heck, how do you know he didn’t pay Kimmetto just to run the race as his personal rabitt? And, as his pacer, maybe with a no-win clause. Sounds like Nascar…

    This is running – No one bought a ticket to watch this and No one is hurt by this performance. This does not alter the integrity of sport – if your upset, train hard and go take them on…

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