Remembering when Rosie Ruiz stole the Boston Marathon from a Canadian

Remembering when Rosie Ruiz stole the Boston Marathon from a Canadian

by Sue Jones
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CBC Sports’ daily newsletter looks back to 1980, when the only Boston Marathon victory ever by a Canadian woman was briefly stolen by one of the most infamous fraudsters in sports history.

Obit Rosie Ruiz

Rosie Ruiz was crowned the women’s champion of the 1980 Boston Marathon before everyone caught on to her deception. (File/The Associated Press)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Three days ago, Malindi Elmore produced one of the more remarkable performances ever by a Canadian distance runner. With the Boston Marathon celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first official women’s competition, the 42-year-old mother of two (and national record-holder) ran the sport’s most prestigious and toughest race in 2:27:58. That’s the fastest time ever by a Canadian woman on this revered course, and it placed Elmore an extremely impressive 11th in her Boston debut.

Still, though, only one Canadian has ever won the women’s division of the Boston Marathon. It happened 42 years ago today, and under the most bizarre circumstances imaginable.

Jacqueline Gareau’s victory on April 21, 1980 would have been incredible just on its own merits. At the time, the 27-year-old Montrealer was by no means a professional athlete. She’d been an out-of-shape smoker until getting hooked on running six years earlier, and didn’t try a marathon until 1977. Gareau’s talent was undeniable from the start (she placed second in her first marathon), but in early 1980 she was still just training in her spare time while working at a hospital. When she made it to Boston for the first time that April, Gareau was taken so lightly that she wasn’t allowed to line up at the front with the elite runners, forcing her to zig-zag through the crowd to catch up.

So imagine everyone’s surprise — and Gareau’s joy — when she not only went toe-to-toe with the elites but pulled away from them and crossed the finish line in a record-breaking 2:34:28. Cinderella story! But then imagine her despair when she saw someone even more unknown than she was — some 27-year-old Cuban-American named Rosie Ruiz — being crowned with the laurel wreath for winning the women’s division.

A few of the top athletes immediately became suspicious when they went to talk to Ruiz and found that this person who had just shattered the Boston Marathon women’s record did not appear to be an actual runner. She didn’t have the body of one, didn’t dress like one, and didn’t even seem to know anything about the sport. Another red flag was that Ruiz didn’t appear all that tired for someone who had supposedly just run for two and half hours on an unseasonably warm day.

Eventually, Ruiz’s entire ruse was uncovered. As the other runners suspected, she was not one of them. She’d cheated her way to a Boston qualifying time by hopping on the subway during the 1979 New York City Marathon, where she “finished” 11th. In Boston, she managed to sneak her way onto the last mile of the course unnoticed a few minutes before Gareau got there. This was difficult but not impossible in an era when chip timing had yet to be introduced, the Boston Marathon attracted far smaller crowds, and fewer than 5,500 runners participated in the race (compared to 30,000 these days).

In the years after her marathon fraud was exposed, Ruiz did jail time for stealing money from the Manhattan real estate company where she worked, and for a foiled cocaine deal at a Miami airport hotel. She died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 66, destined to forever be mentioned in any discussion of the biggest cheaters in sports history.

Boston Marathon

Jacqueline Gareau finally got the chance to break the Boston Marathon tape in 2005, a quarter century after she won the race. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

It took about a week for Ruiz’s Boston Marathon title to be handed to its rightful winner. And 25 years for Gareau to receive something else she deserved — the satisfaction of breaking the tape at the finish line in downtown Boston. Gareau was named the grand marshal of the 2005 race, where a pace car carried the 52-year-old to the end of the course and she ran the last 100m to finally get the first-place finish she’d earned a quarter century earlier.

In between, Gareau fashioned an excellent marathon career — especially considering her modest reputation before her Boston win. She placed second in Tokyo later that year, then  finished fifth, second and second in the next three Boston Marathons. Gareau was fifth at the 1983 world championships and qualified for the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles, though she was unable to finish that race. She earned victories in Montreal and L.A., and placed second in Chicago and Houston before the end of her prime in the mid-to-late ’80s.

If you’d like to learn more about Gareau and the “Rosie Ruiz race,” read this 2015 Q&A by Scott Leitch for Canadian Running. I used some of the details she shares there for this newsletter.

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