Rosie's Run

In the 1980 Boston Marathon, a woman named Rosie Ruiz hopped out of the crowd at the 25th mile of the race and sprinted to the finish line to claim victory. On the 25th anniversary of Ruiz's hoax, ESPN's Aaron Kuriloff explains why it will never happen again. The changes in how the Boston Marathon is administered offers us a nice case study at the nexus of three social-political mechanisms of domination: Foucault's discipline, Deleuze's control, and Debord's spectacle.

Still, Ruiz has left an indelible imprint on Boston and other marathons around the world, race officials said. From computer chips imbedded in runners' shoes to a network of digital video cameras tracking the race, Ruiz's legacy is a near foolproof monitoring system that allows officials to track every one of the tens of thousands of runners in the race. It's a boon to organizers and a benefit to spectators, who can follow their friends' progress on computer screens around the world. It's a system increasingly standard to road races around the world.

"There's two obvious things different today," said Dave McGillivrey, race director for the Boston Marathon. "One is certainly technology, in the form of chip systems and the way we're able to track runners along the course and know at all times who's in the lead and what their splits are. And No. 2, there's now TV vehicles right out in front. … If someone jumped in front of the TV truck, it's going to get noticed."

In the early days of the 109-year-old race, officials relied on volunteers to track the runners' progress along the 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston. The technology used was no more complex than a notebook and a ballpoint pen. "When runners went by a checkpoint, volunteers wrote down their bib number and their time," said Jack Fleming, a spokesman for the race. Those volunteers worked in pairs and brought their notebooks back to a central point for analysis. "At the end of the day, you could put the pieces back together again — see that No. 10 was in 10th place at five miles, fifth place at 10 miles, and so on."

. . .

It wasn't that the checkpoint system didn't work. In fact, race organizers used data from the checkpoints to confirm eyewitness reports that Ruiz had cheated. It's just that the system didn't work in time to prevent Ruiz from scamming her way onto the podium. "After that, everyone stepped back and said 'We need to go a lot deeper,' " Fleming said.

Adding prize money to the mix, as organizers did in the 1986 race, increased the need to ensure the marathon's integrity. Organizers increased the number of checkpoints to 14, and added video surveillance along the route. The addition of live broadcasts of both men's and women's races also reduced the possibility of a cheater jumping in at the last minute. Drug testing became increasingly prevalent, and the corporate sponsor who provided the cash purse also gave money for crowd control.

. . .

But the most dramatic change came in 1996, when organizers began supplying each runner with a small computer chip. According to several manufacturers, these chips are encased in tiny, nearly weightless plastic packages that lace into the runners' shoes or attach to their bibs. When a competitor crosses a mat placed on the tarmac at each of the marathon's checkpoints, the mat reads information from the chip and transmits it to a computer.

. . .

A race the size of the Boston Marathon requires 11 different chip systems, supplied by independent contractors, in order to provide chips for all runners. It also requires a computer hub staffed by networking specialists from Hewlett-Packard, a sponsor.

The final big advance arrived this year, in the form of digital cameras synchronized with the computer chip. As runners trigger the mats on the course, the cameras follow their movements. This allows organizers to verify that chips are, in fact, being worn by the correct runners. It also allows the company supplying the cameras to extract 15 to 20 seconds worth of footage from each checkpoint and sell runners personalized DVDs of their own highlights.


Comments are closed.