LAST UPDATED: 22 November 2021
Race Banditing: A Race Director's Guide
A look at race banditing from the perspective of the race director: who are race bandits, what motivates them, what does the law say and how to combat them?
The Urban Dictionary, has this to say about "scrumping ", a predominantly British English term:
"Stealing fruit, especially apples, from someone else's trees. It's considered less bad than, say, shoplifting, but adults still disapprove."
Banditing - the practice of running a race unregistered either in part or in full - has historically been a bit like that in the eyes of most people, including some race directors: "less bad than shoplifting, but adults still disapprove"...
But with the popularity and the cost of races rising sharply over the years, banditing has developed into a major nuisance for many events, putting all kinds of new strains (financial, legal, security etc) on already stretched race organisers.
In the rest of this article we'll try to shed some light into the many aspects of race banditing, from the different types of bandits and their motivations, to the evolving challenges banditing poses for events, common bandit countermeasures and some rare insights into the status of banditing under the law.
Race bandits and their motivations
Race bandits come in many shapes and sizes and it's fair to say not everyone who crashes a race does so with the same level of self-awareness. Some types of banditing post bigger risks for events than others. So let's take a look at some of the more common types of race bandit and their motivations.
People who jump in a race with the intention of running a portion of the race without displaying a race number or identifier are one of the more common types of race bandit. Sometimes jump-in bandits will run only a few kilometres of a race to pace a friend, other times they'll join the race shortly after the start with the intention of running the entire race.
When confronted, jump-ins will offer a number of reasons for having joined a race, ranging from not having been able to register in time to exercising their "right" to run on public roads.
As we'll see later in our discussion on the legal ramifications of banditing, by joining a race without a bib number jump-ins are not deliberately attempting to deceive race organisers. Which means that some of the charges that can be levelled against other, more "conscientious" types of bandit, may not apply in their case - and sometimes jump-ins may be totally unaware they are doing anything wrong when joining a race.
Bib swappers - people who swap out or sell their bibs to others - are another common type of race bandit. In fact, because swapping bibs is difficult to detect, they might be more common that people realise.
In terms of the motivation of bib swappers, these can vary from a registered participant giving up their bib to a friend because they are injured or unable to run the race, to participants selling their bibs to strangers for a profit or giving up their bib to a so-called bib mule (!) so the mule can put a fast time against their name that would qualify them for a race they wouldn't otherwise be able to qualify for, such as the Boston Marathon.
Unlike jump-ins, swappers and others who run on other people's official race bibs, run the risk of being accused of fraud in some jurisdictions, as they are assuming someone else's identity in order to gain a benefit.
Whereas the motivation and self-awareness of jump-ins and swappers can sometimes be doubted, there can be no such extenuating circumstances for forgers: people who deliberately work on producing counterfeit bibs to fool organisers into thinking they are legitimately participating in a race.
Bib forgers show complete contempt for race directors and other registered runners, and sometimes cite high entry fees or prohibitive qualification criteria as the reason for being "forced" to such drastic measures. As we'll see in the legal discussion later on, by producing false credentials and knowingly banditing a race, forgers potentially open themselves up to all kinds of legal charges.
Problems caused by banditing
For many in the running community, banditing seems like a victimless crime: a few people enter the race without registering, but in the end it's no big deal.
That is, however, not the case. And, although not every event will have to contend with the levels of banditry seen in races like Wharf to Wharf, race bandits can still cause a number of headaches for race directors, including:
Event safety and security risks
If you run a closed event where you're responsible for the wellbeing of everyone taking part, as well as those attending, not knowing who's on your race course can be a big problem.
Undocumented participants are not only a security risk, particularly after the dreadful events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, but also a potential drain on first aid personnel who, in case of illness or injury, will have to deal with persons they know nothing about (name, next of kin, emergency contact, medical record etc).
Bandits using race supplies earmarked for registered participants is - understandably - a major pet peeve for many race directors.
More so than the cost of a water bottle or energy gel, bandits taking away race supplies that have not been allocated to them can increase the risk of certain aid stations running out of supplies. Which can pose a big risk to an event's reputation, should a frustrated participant arrive at an aid station that has run out of supplies and decide to make a big fuss about it on social media or leave a bad review for the race on a popular race calendar.
Skewed race results
One of the lesser known consequences of bib swapping is the effect it has on age group and race category results.
20-year olds racing in the bibs of 50-years olds, and husbands and wives swapping bibs can create a real nuisance for race results and some embarrassing moments for award ceremonies...Not to mention more serious integrity issues when people swapping out their bibs end up qualifying for races they don't deserve to qualify for on merit (see bib mules).
Like with race supplies, getting more people on the course than you originally planned for risks undermining the event experience for paying participants - the people who help keep events and organisers in business.
Overcrowding is definitely not one of the more major problems caused by bandits, but it can still be an issue around the start line and can put additional pressure on volunteers and event staff at the finish area.
Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the concept of duty of care, race directors have an obligation to provide a safe racing environment to everyone on a race course - bandits included. Which means, as this lawsuit of an injured bandit demonstrates, that you can be sued if a race bandit suffers an injury in your race.
Although it's fair that you should be expected to provide a safe racing environment for everyone in your race, regardless of whether they paid to race or not, minimising the inherent risks of injury can be a lot easier when people register for the race, make themselves available for safety briefings and follow instructions you set out. So race bandits not only increase the number of people under your care, they also make it very hard for you to carry out your duties and help them avoid injury as they are outside your communication audience.
(Wondering how your insurer might view this liability, should something bad happen? So do we! So, reach out or leave a comment if you have the answer.)
Risk of loss of permits
If permits issued for an event are based on participant numbers, as is sometimes the case with trail running events or races taking place in protected areas, there is a risk these permits can be revoked if a large number of bandits turn up for a race (as in the case mentioned by RD Blaine Moore in one of the comments here).
Banditing and the law
Getting something other people have to pay for for free sounds a lot like a law is being broken somewhere. But is banditing really illegal? And exactly what laws are being broken?
The answer to these questions can vary a lot between legal jurisdictions. What might be legal in Australia may not be legal in the US - and there too state statute can complicate things further.
In what follows, we'll look at legal opinion and precedence in three common areas in the debate on the legality of banditing: theft, fraud and tresspass. Starting with the most obvious question:
Is banditing theft?
The first charge usually levelled against race bandits is that of theft. But do race bandits steal something when they decide to crash a race, regardless of whether they use race supplies or not?
In a rare look into these questions published in the Illinois Law Review, titled " Running in the Shadows: Analyzing Legality and Morality in Marathon Banditing", JD Candidate, Gabriela Zamfir, concludes the case is far from straightforward...
First, she argues, there is the question of whether races have value that can be stolen. Presumably, she concludes, they do, otherwise people wouldn't pay money to register for them. And there's also the obvious costs associated with putting on a race, things like road-closure costs, expenses for signage, race marshals etc.
But then there's the question few non-experts thing to ask, which is: Do race bandits know there are misappropriating race value? In other words, do they even know they're doing something wrong?
Obviously, the answer to this question varies a lot for different types of bandit. Someone who photocopies a bib must know they are doing something wrong. But the same might not be said of someone who jumps into the race to pace a friend or even someone who runs the entire race without feeling the need to display a bib at all (the "it's a public road" brigade).
As Zamfir puts it in "Running in the Shadows", there is a mental state requirement in law that the person committing a crime should know they're doing something illegal. Or as the Illinois theft of services statute puts it, a person must: " knowingly obtain the temporary use of property, labor or services of another which are available only for hire, by means of threat or deception or knowing that such use is without the consent of the person providing the property, labor, or services. "
With banditing being tolerated for so long, it might be argued that at least some people who bandit races are unaware they're doing something wrong and would therefore fail the mental state requirement test.
Is banditing fraud?
Whether some forms of banditing might constitute fraud is perhaps an easier question to settle. In fact, it has been settled on at least one occasion, the case of Stanislaw Skupian.
In 2018, Stanislaw Skupian picked up a discarded race bib he found lying around during the London Marathon and used it to cross the finish line and claim a medal. Organisers of the race successfully argued that Skupian's impersonation of a registered participant constituted fraud and Skupian was subsequently jailed for his actions.
Although it's not guaranteed that similar arguments would fare as well in other jurisdictions, it is clear that bib swappers and forgers open themselves up to charges of fraud by pretending to be someone they are not to gain access to a race. Whether races have the appetite or the resources to prosecute some in order to dissuade others is another story.
Is banditing trespassing?
Which gets us to the charge of trespassing: Are bandits trespassing when they enter a race without authorisation?
Like in the case of theft, Zamfir suggests the answer might be less obvious than most people think.
Consider, for example, New York trespass law. Criminal trespass under NY state statute considers third degree criminal trespass to occur when a person " knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in a building or upon real property which is fenced or otherwise enclosed in a manner designed to exclude intruders”. Here's that mental state requirement again, requiring that a trespasser be aware that entering a race is unlawful.
And then, there's the hurdle of "sufficient notice", as demonstrated by Illinois trespass statute which requires that a trespasser "remain upon the land of another, after receiving notice from the owner or occupant to depart."
Can races be expected to provide sufficient notice to everyone along the course? This may sound feasible in the case of a 5k or 10k, but it may be a very high bar to have to clear for a marathon or longer event.
Short of dragging bandits to court, what other options are there for discouraging them from crashing your race?
Here's a few counter-measures used by races around the world and a few more creative tactics suggested by members of our race directors group:
Blocking and tackling
No, not literally....More like covering all angles in your legal documentation and public information to make sure no one can claim they "didn't know" banditing was not allowed in your race.
We know: putting something in your race terms and conditions sounds a bit futile, considering most bandits' contempt for rules. But there are bits you can add that can provide at least some protection.
For example, bib swappers often claim ignorance of any rules prohibiting them from gifting or even selling their bibs to another person. Making sure the T&Cs they would have agreed to clearly state this is not allowed can at least rob them of that particular excuse.
And then there's participants who allow their bibs to be copied or used for the production of bib counterfeits. These too can be explicitly dealt with in your terms and conditions with the sanction of a lifetime ban or the threat of prosecution.
When it comes to designing your race bib, there's a few things you can do to thwart race bandits.
Perhaps the easiest is to make sure the design of your race bibs changes from one race edition to the next. Often, race bandits will attempt to run with copies or discarded originals of last year's race, so making the design distinctly different from one year to another helps.
Then, there's colour-coding. Using different colours for different genders and age groups can help you and your team more easily spot bib swappers and will also throw off some of the less detail-oriented bib forgers.
And, finally, there's marking up race bibs on the day. Even the smallest of marks made on a bib by one of your team can help weed out counterfeits. But this should be weighed up against the additional logistics it will create for you on race day.
Banning bandits from future races can be a bit of a deterrent for some types of bandit and almost absolutely pointless for others.
For bib swappers, assuming this is a big problem in your race, it might help to highlight the risk of getting banned from the race to prevent people from swapping bibs or putting their bibs up for sale. This can work as an awareness campaign as much as a threat.
Of course, none of this will deter most race bandits who will enter a race with or without a bib and care little about the prospect of not being allowed to register for the race in the future.
Hunting down race bandits and removing them from the race course is one of the more effective ways of combating banditing and many events experiencing serious banditing problems are doing more and more of it.
Stationing race crews or volunteers around the course to identify and remove bandits will definitely help eliminate bandits running without race bibs. There are many places to do this, but near the finish line seems to be a favourite with many race directors, perhaps because it deprives bandits the satisfaction of finishing the race and claiming a medal.
Besides jump-ins and other no-bib bandits, expert bandit catchers can even go after bib forgers, either by visually picking out counterfeit bibs or by standing by intermediate timing mats towards the sparse end of the race and picking out people with race bibs that don't bleep (even an expert counterfeiter won't be able to get around that!).
Which gets us to calling out bandits and shaming them publicly (either during the race or after the race, once their identities have been established).
It is perhaps understandable why this way of dealing with race bandits, particularly repeat and unrepentant offenders, would seem appealing to frustrated race directors who feel their pockets being picked by entitled runners with no regards for the effort that goes into putting on a race.
But it's a temptation race directors need to resist. As one of our race director group members put it, "although public shaming might feel good at the moment, it’s not a good reflection on your race". And we agree.
Carrot vs stick
Instead of the stick of public shaming, you might find the carrot of reaching out and trying to be constructive with bandits working better sometimes.
After all, it's not like race bandits are hardened criminals and, as we saw earlier, many bandits often don't know they are doing something wrong. So reaching out to them and trying to understand why they chose to participate unregistered may yield some benefits.
Perhaps someone chose to run alongside their best friend and didn't have time to register. This is someone who might not object to paying for their entry after the race, and definitely not someone your race should alienate by being too harsh on. Maybe next year they register and bring a team with them in gratitude or decide to help your race out as a volunteer.
Treating people with respect, however annoying their behaviour, is probably a much better way forward with most "casual" bandits.
A discussion on banditing counter-measures wouldn't be complete without a look at legal prosecution.
As we saw in the discussion earlier, there are two significant obstacles in prosecuting bandits, even if it is to make an example:
- Most organisers don't have the resources or the willingness to do so
- The law is less than perfectly clear about the legality of some forms of race banditing
So, for the most part, prosecution is not an avenue most events want to pursue.
There are ways, however, for those who want to test this approach to do so. For example, working closer with the police on understanding what existing laws bandits might be pursued after can at least give race directors confidence in removing bandits from the race. And that alone will go some way to reversing the impression of impunity surrounding banditing, particularly among repeat offenders.
Banditing is a complex issue. And complex issues like banditing require a variety of responses.
Reforms in the law and tighter race controls are part of the answer. But significant changes are unlikely unless these measures are also followed by a shift in attitudes by the racing community.
No one is entitled to taking part in an event that is only being made possible through the efforts, funding or charitable commitments of other. No one is entitled to participate in an event alongside people who pay, qualify or otherwise contribute to an event and play by the rules laid out by organisers.
The sooner race banditing is set on par with other types of unauthorised event crashing in the eyes of the public and the law, the better it will be for the sport and the people working hard to make these amazing races happen.