Why Counterfeit Race Bibs are NOT a Victimless Crime

Throughout the running community, it’s been pretty well publicized at this point that some folks ran with counterfeit bibs at the Boston Marathon last week. The race had the highest demand in its 118-year history after last year’s bombings created a huge desire for runners to to return and reclaim the race.

Even in just the second year of qualifying standards tightening by five minutes across the board, and an increased field size, competition was so tough that not all qualifiers made it in. Charity entries, given to Boston-area charities as a major fundraising initiative, were greater in the number of availability, but demand was so high that commitments doubled from normal levels. In all, $27.5 million was raised by the charity participants!

But still, there were more runners who wanted to participate. Traditionally, the BAA, which puts on the race, allows bandits (runners who don’t pay the entry fee). In just about any race, that’s a taboo that goes heavily against running’s unwritten code of ethics. I’ve never done it and I never will. It’s just wrong. But Boston embraces it — it’s a tradition that local bandits, typically college students, start after the entire field has gone through the start line. Usually it’s a few thousand runners and it’s a tradition that’s embraced. The BAA even factors bandits into the on-course support it provides during the race.

Edit: Somebody sent me a DM on Twitter and reminded me that back in 2011 I ran a marathon with somebody else’s bib. Full disclosure, here’s what happened, I don’t mind you judging me. A few days before the race, a friend asked me to pace him and told me he had a bib from another friend of ours who was entered in the race and not running. He was slower than me and this took the place of my training run that weekend. Without a bib that was paid for, I absolutely would not have stepped foot on the course. And without somebody providing me with a legitimate bib, I would not have participated. I have no idea what the transfer policy was — I couldn’t get up to the expo anyways, so the bib was picked up for me. To me, it was different that truly banditing (sneaking onto the course without a bib) and it was WAY different than running with a counterfeit bib. But, I did run with somebody else’s bib. So if you choose to judge me as a past bandit, I understand. This doesn’t change my opinions at all about banditing or what happened with the counterfeit bibs in Boston.

However, this year, due to dramatically increased security, the BAA announced very clearly in advance that bandits were NOT permitted. It was made very clear before the race that security measures were going to be much tighter. Bandits were not welcomed or embraced this year.

In the days after the race, though, it was discovered that some people went beyond banditing, though — they bought or created counterfeit bibs.

Here’s the highest-profile of the phonies:

This is the founder of Foursquare and his wife. His bib is real. Hers isn't.
This is the founder of Foursquare and his wife. His bib is real. Hers isn’t.

That’s the founder of Foursquare and his wife. He’s legitimately in the race, she isn’t. What’s annoying about them is their sense of entitlement. His apology was this:

I don’t expect everyone to understand our strong need to run and and finish together — but after trying unsuccessfully to get a charity number and trying unsuccessfully to officially transfer a number from an injured-runner friend, we did what we could to make sure we could run together in hopes of finishing together.

Translates to Hey, rules be damned, I did what I wanted to because I wanted to. The smugness of it all annoys me, as does the fact that it’s a lie. If it was so important to him, like he says, he would have applied for a charity bid like everybody else who went the charity route. I did that and the most important questions were how much I could commit to raise and what my fundraising plan was. Pretty sure that if he said, “I’ll raise $20,000, I own a giant social media company, I have a following on Twitter of nearly 75,000 people and I can write a check because my net worth is deep in the eight-figure range,” he would have gotten a bib.

His unsuccessful attempt to get a charity bib probably started a couple of weeks before the race. There is absolutely NO WAY they couldn’t get a charity bib at the same time that everybody else applied. So he just did what he wanted to and had a counterfeit made. The sense of entitlement and living above the rules annoys me, especially when instead of truly apologizing, he justifies it with a well, I really, really wanted to … so there.

These four people in this next picture were the first to be outed when the person with the real 14285 bib noticed these images when she went to look at her race pictures.

This made the rounds on social media last week. All of these runners were running with a counterfeit bib.
This made the rounds on social media last week. All of these runners were running with a counterfeit bib.

This created a stir within the running community. Some people argued that it was a slap in the face to those who obtained their bib in the right way. Others said that in reality, the supplies were already purchased and these folks didn’t hurt anybody. Focus on your own life and don’t worry about others, they said, this was a victimless crime.

But this was NOT a victimless crime. Even with just a handful of folks very visibly identified as using counterfeit bibs, this is now a huge problem that MUST be dealt with, otherwise it’s going to create huge problems for the race in years to come.

The BAA has no choice but to implement methods to prevent counterfeit bibs starting with next year’s race. If it doesn’t do that, a huge black market will be created. The popularity of the race grows every year, and now it’s not a secret at all participants can get through security with a fake bib. Even though just a handful of runners have faced widespread shame on social media, the damage has been done.

If the BAA chooses to announce its plan to deter counterfeits, it will have to something pretty comprehensive that begins at the transportation lines at Boston Common four hours before the start of the race. Almost certainly it’s going to have to involve something new and computerized at the bus line that involves scanning bibs or checking for timing strips on the back of bibs. Either way, it’s going to slow the process and cost money. If planners expect it will slow the process significantly, they’ll have to increase the number of buses they rent. Security will have to be increased again in Hopkinton where runners approach the starting corrals. This will also require something new and computerized, not to mention an increase in staff.

The costs for this will be passed on to legitimate entrants. If it costs $500,000 for software, staff and equipment, that’s $20 extra on the race fee for everybody right off the top. I got that number estimating 1,000 hand-held devices at $250 each, plus $100,000 for software development and 1,000 six-hour shifts at $25/hour. I’m not figuring anything for buses, but you can see how quickly you cost each participant $20.

That’s just a rough idea of a way that cracking down on counterfeit bibs could be done, but there’s no question it would take a considerable amount of money, not to mention slowing down the race-day process for legitimate participants. Absolutely not a victimless crime, and definitely not something that’s not costing anybody any money.

If the BAA does NOT come up with a comprehensive plan to deter and stop counterfeit bibs, the black market will have a year to get ready and the BAA will have to estimate how many people will be running with counterfeit bibs. Bandits have typically been about 2,000-3,000 total. If the BAA expects that many counterfeiters on the course (I’d consider that reasonable), they’ll have to increase the amount of supplies they purchase, to pay for them, and those costs will obviously be passed on to legitimate participants.

In a worst-case scenario, if they have to account for a significant number of phonies in the permit and insurance process, they might have to reduce the number of accepted entries. Say they can accommodate 27,000 participants but they know they’re going to get 3,000 rogue runners because they choose not to spend a fortune policing it. They’d have to reduce the number of participants they accept. If that comes from the group of runners who qualified based on time, then fewer would be getting in and runners who should be accepted would be left out.

If the number of charity runners is trimmed to provide cushion for counterfeits, it’s charities that will lose. More than $27M was raised this year for dozens of very worthy causes.

How the BAA approaches this is above my pay grade. There are different options that they’ll weigh. I have no idea what they’ll do. The only thing I know is that they won’t do nothing. They have to do something. And whatever that something is, it’s going to cost a lot of money and it’s probably going to create significant inconveniences for legitimate entrants. It could well cost deserving runners a chance to participate in the race. It’s very reasonable to expect that it will cost charities money. And I’d be shocked if costs don’t get passed on to runners.

These runners using phony bibs who thought they weren’t costing anybody anything? They couldn’t have been more wrong.

What do you think? Am I off my rocker? Is this a legitimate problem?[subscribe2]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *