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Kopac's Corner

ChampionChip - The Magical End to Cheating

by Bob Kopac

" 'Tis my opinion every man cheats in his way, and he is only honest who is not discovered." Susannah Centlivre

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Arthur C. Clarke

In spite of the dire warnings of Luddites, the magic of today's technology actually can help solve some of life's most difficult problems, even problems in running races. An amazing example is the ChampionChip, the product of a company in the Netherlands (website http://www.championchip.de). Now distributed widely in the United States, the ChampionChip conquers the greatest nemesis of race directors everywhere: the cheating runner.

While running-time fraud always has been a potential problem at running races, for a long time only race officials were aware of the problem. Nowadays, however, even non-runners recognize the name of Rosie Ruiz, the person caught cheating at the Boston Marathon and stripped of her first-place award.

Although the problem of deception became well-known after the Rosie-Ruiz incident, there was no perfect way for race officials to prevent or detect deception. Cameras in vehicles could track the first-place male and the first-place female, but how could you track runners in the 2nd, 3rd, or lesser places? An even more difficult problem was how to detect deception in age-group categories, since runners in an age-group category such as 60-65 years may be back in the pack and difficult to recognize. Even after the Rosie-Ruiz incident, Boston Marathon officials caught two runners cheating in age-group categories. The runners' mistake was fabricating times close to the record for their age categories.

Deception now can be eliminated by the revolutionary ChampionChip. This amazing Chip can track the actual time the runner crosses magnetic mats, instantaneously creating a verifiable record of the runner's starting, finishing, and split times. At this Boston Marathon, race officials placed mats on the course every five kilometers, tracking each runner's time throughout the course. This placement of mats virtually eliminated cheating, since a runner would have only a 5K window to cheat before the next mat. The elapsed time of each 5K interval could be compared with the times of the runner's other 5K intervals to detect any major inconsistencies. In order to defraud the system, someone would have to cheat every five kilometers, which would be almost impossible.

The 1994 Berlin Marathon was the first major marathon to use the ChampionChip system. The system was an outstanding success, leading to the adoption of the system in many races throughout Europe. The system soon spread to Japan and to the United States.

The ChampionChip consists of the following hardware, as described by the Washington Running Report website.

TIRIS--a high-frequency identification system from Texas Instruments, identifies each runner using technology similar to the technology used for automobile security alarm systems.

ChampionChip--the circular-shaped plastic Chip, measuring one-and-a-half inches wide, contains a copper coil or computer chip that acts as a transponder. The cooper coil automatically transmits a unique seven-character identification code on reception of a signal. The runner threads a shoelace through the holes in the Chip, then ties the shoelaces normally. The Chip is now in the right position for reading by the antenna mats.

Antenna mats--these weather-proof mats produce a magnetic field that energizes the transponder in the ChampionChip. The mats also carry a receiver that captures the signal from the ChampionChip, thus recording the time of the runner. A 14-foot-wide mat system can handle over 1,500 runners per minute; the mats can handle all runners that can physically cross the mats.

Computers--hooked up to the antenna mats, the computers capture the times of the runners and provide instantaneous times for race officials. At the last Boston Marathon, the interim times of each runner were posted to the Internet, allowing friends and relatives to track the progress of a particular runner.

By placing mats at the start of the race, the time of the runner is captured as the runner crosses the mat. Thus there are two times: the time the gun actually sounds, and the time the runner actually crossed the starting line as measured by the antenna mat. By subtracting the finishing time from the starting time as measured by the mats, a net time is calculated. Except for the elite athletes who cross the line at the sound of the gun, the net time is different from the time calculated using the traditional starting-gun time. The Boston Marathon uses the runner's net time as the qualifying time for the next Boston Marathon.

The Boston Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon, Pittsburgh Marathon, Walt Disney Marathon, and the 1996 Olympic Marathon are among the races in the United States implementing ChampionChip technology. In 1997, five investors from Houston, Texas created Champion-Chip of Texas Inc. to market the technology at races in the Houston area. More races in the United States will incorporate the ChampionChip technology as word of the successes of the technology spreads. This should help lower the initial cost of the system, which can run $20,000 for a simple system. Because of the cost, initially some races may raise their fees to cover the cost of the system.

There is an international database of ChampionChip owners. Runners will be able to purchase a personal ChampionChip that the runner can use at any race that uses the ChampionChip technology. This may even result in lower entry fees for an individual owning his or her Chip.

As with any technological system, there are new procedures that race participants must learn and follow, and there are new problems that can occur.

At the Boston Marathon, runners had to report to the Chip testing table to verify that the Chip assigned to each runner matched the runner's bib number.

The time of any runner who crossed the finish line without a ChampionChip would not be recorded in the official results.

Since the Boston Athletic Association had to pay for any lost Chips, they held each runner's finishing medal hostage, exchanging the finishing medal for the Chip. For runners not running the marathon or not finishing the marathon, the B.A.A. encouraged them to exchange the Chip for a Boston Marathon pin.

At the Boston Marathon, there was a report that a few middle-of-the-pack runners did not have their starting times recorded. However, this was corrected by comparing the 5K interval times of each runner and determining the approximate starting time of the affected runners.

In case of a computer breakdown (just think of the MIR space platform), race officials need to have a backup system using the bib numbers.

A person could still attempt to cheat in an age category by having a younger, faster person run most of the race wearing the older person's ChampionChip. The faster runner could then stop and give the ChampionChip to the older runner who is waiting along the course. However, race officials could implement other methods, such as video cameras at various checkpoints, to detect fraud of this type.

The ChampionChip technology with the TIRIS system should revolutionize road racing in the United States. Cheaters would be eliminated from major races in the United States. There will come a time when race officials will wonder how earlier race officials could ever run a large race without the ChampionChip system.