When Belainesh Gebre, an Ethiopian athlete based in Flagstaff, Ariz., was unable to gain invited status for the 38th Honolulu Marathon here this morning, she and her boyfriend, Ezkyas Sisay, decided to sign-up for the race on their own. Race organizers were tipped off that she planned to compete by another competitor, and Honolulu Marathon Association president Dr. Jim Barahal allowed her and Sisay into the invited athletes staging area in the predawn darkness this morning.
"Because, you know, she tried to enter (as an) elite athlete, they didn't accept her," Sisay explained to reporters after the race.
Wearing bib number 9670, Gebre tucked in behind Sisay right from the gun, hitting the first kilometer in 3:25, and the first mile in 5:33, several seconds faster than course record pace. With the exception of designated pacemaker Kaori Yoshida of Japan, who ran close behind the Ethiopian couple through 15 km, no other women were in sight.
Because Gebre, a 1:09:43 half-marathon runner who has won her last five road races, was not part of the invited field, she did not have her own energy drinks at the eight official aid stations like the other top women. To compensate for that, she drank PowerBar energy drink from bottles which ringed Sisay's waist on a belt.
That's where all of the trouble started.
USA Track & Field rules 144 and 241 address unfair assistance to athletes, and Sisay's pacing Gebre, supplying her with drinks several times from his belt, bringing her sponges and drinks from the aid stations, and providing information to her about her pace and the whereabouts of her rivals was over the line as far as three-time champion Svetlana Zakharova of Russia was concerned. After closing the gap on the slowing Gebre late in the race to about 40 seconds, Zakharova was unable to catch the Ethiopian who ran the last kilometer of the race alone after Sisay ducked off of the course. The 40 year-old Russian, who has won both the Boston and Chicago Marathons, filed a protest after Gebre clocked 2:32:13 to win in her marathon debut. Zakharova finished 48 seconds back.
Minutes later in a rambling interview, Sisay said he didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
"We need to drink PowerBar," he said referring to the energy drinks he carried. "Then, we shared our drink."
He then insisted that he was not in the race to pace Gebre, but was trying to compete in the men's division, instead.
"I came here, I wanted to finish top-3," he said. "This is my liquid. She asked me then, I gave her."
After investigating the matter with a local USA Track & Field official, Barahal told reporters that he was unhappy about what Sisay had done, but that his offense didn't rise to the level where Gebre should be disqualified.
"After careful review of photographic evidence, eyewitness accounts, and some discussions with the runner and her running companion and coach, we have made the decision to affirm the results and declare (her) the winner of the race. The results stand as determined on the course."
Barahal reasoned that since Gebre did not have access to the special fluid service provided to the invited athletes, her taking the drinks from Sisay essentially leveled the playing field.
"Because she entered on her own and was not an elite athlete, she was not able to access our elite aid stations, which there are eight on the course," Barahal, a cardiologist, said. "Since she wasn't an elite athlete, she didn't have that. By eyewitness accounts, we have reliable reports that she received assistance six times. Even if that's true, that's still less than the eight (stations) the other athletes had."
Barahal said that he spoke to the Ethiopian couple sternly and expressed his displeasure, and that if she decided to return next year to defend her title such conduct would not be tolerated.
"We don't think there was any question that the coach acted inappropriately," Barahal intoned. "Whether that reached the standard for disqualification is something reasonable people could probably disagree on." He added: "Let's face it, at the end of the day she did run 26.2 miles."
Gebre earned $40,000 in prize money, compared to $16,000 for Zakharova. Third place went to Japan's Yoshida, who decided to finish, in 2:39:02.
So apparently the official line is that while what the couple did was wrong, it was simply not wrong enough. I would like to know what the USATF official who was consulted suggested and the basis for the input that official gave. If race officials thought that she did not warrant invited elite entry and all that goes with it then she should have either carried her own fluids or just taken what was available on the course. The boyfriend is a liar, if he truly were gunning for a top-three finish then there is no way he would have been hanging around his woman through even 5K, let alone through 41K and then stepping off the course with just 1K remaining. He interfered with the women's race and the two of them manipulated the outcome by finessing the rules. If this sport had any semblance of authoritative integrity then Gebre absolutely would have been disqualified. The "[let's] face it, at the end of the day she did run 26.2 miles" logic coming from the race director is head-shakingly simplistic, exhibiting a remarkably poor understanding of the sport. So the Ethiopians and the RD cheated Zakharova out of $24,000.
Late-breaking input from David Monti of Race Results Weekly: http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?board=1&thread=3826912&id=3843274#3843274