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Controversial outcome a disappointing decision

By Dave Reardon

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 07:49 a.m. HST, Dec 13, 2010



Foot races are supposed to be simple and pure.

You just run, and whoever gets to the finish line first wins, right?

But whether it's high school track or the Olympics, it seems not to work out that way much of the time. So often some technicality, someone cheating or some bizarre never-seen-before situation arises. Murphy and his law rarely take a day off just to sit back and enjoy the view.

And now you can add the 2010 Honolulu Marathon women's competition to the long list of races with outcomes tainted by controversy.

This should have been a great, feel-good story — Belainesh Gebre, a 22-year-old from Ethiopia coming out of nowhere (or, one exit west of it, Flagstaff, Ariz.) to win the first marathon she'd ever competed in, shocking the field while wearing a bib number as long as the VIN on my 2003 Saturn.

Yes, theoretically the marathon is like the World Series of Poker, anyone can win. But when you're running 26.2 miles, there's no lucking out on the river — you certainly can, however, die on the hills.

Young runners like Gebre who dare to take command usually falter at the latest on Diamond Head, with wily veterans like defending champion Svetlana Zakharova chugging past on the home stretch — if not earlier. But Gebre's body didn't completely break down, and Zakharova ran out of miles to make up the difference.

THE KID in her first marathon ran out front, all alone.

Well, not really by herself, and therein lies the problem.

She had a coach, a pacesetter, a wind-breaker and a mobile aid-station, all rolled into one. She had her boyfriend, Ezkyas Tsegaya, right where good boyfriends are usually supposed to be — with her every step of the way.

Almost every step in this case, as Tsegaya bugged out right near the end. And Gebre finished the final few yards by herself, presumably to glory and more than $40,000.

But maybe not.

MORE THAN TWO hours earlier, a little after 5 a.m. and the start, the running and racing experts already were shaking their heads. The line between smart tactics and bad ethics — and maybe even the black-and-white letter of the rules — had been crossed as Tsegaya started to do everything but lay his cloak over puddles for his lady.

Runners draft off each other all the time, and no one saw anything wrong with employing the fastest marathoner in the world, Patrick Makau, as an uber rabbit to set the pace for the elite men.

But you can't use a fellow runner like mountain climbers use Sherpas. Tsegaya wore a belt full of drinks that he gave Gebre; what's worse is that they played dumb, claiming the beverages were only for him.

There is a rule against this, but enforcing it is left up to the race officials. Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal and referee Dick Sutton weighed everything and decided to let them off with a stern warning, meaning Gebre keeps the win and the prize money.

The decision is surprising and disappointing. Could Gebre have won without Tsegaya's help? Doubtful, because of her lack of experience. We'll never know for sure, but from here it looks like Zakharova was robbed.

GEBRE IS INVITED back as defending champion. Tsegaya can run with her if they want.

But ...

"If he's out there with a fluid belt again," Barahal said, "we're going to say, 'Dude, no.'"

Gebre completed the course and crossed the finish line first, and he said that factored heavily in the decision.

"It's not in the Rosie Ruiz sense. She finished the race," Barahal said. "We're always going to be pro-runner. She ran the race."

But so did the defending champ — a minute behind, and without a moving beverage dispenser to make things easier.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.






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