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Amateur hour

Dennis Mbelenzi may have been shunned by the organisers and lead vehicle, but his race victory in the Bermuda Half-Marathon Derby meant something to his supporters (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The saying “rules were meant to be broken” has always been a bit of a misnomer. But they are meant to be amended when the original edict no longer carries the same propriety. As society evolves, the way we have done things in the past has to be tinkered with with a view to being upgraded, to change with the times, to more accurately mirror the reality in which we live.

The organisers of the Bermuda Half-Marathon Derby, the most cherished and culturally significant road race in the domestic sporting calendar, need a reality check as they find themselves again in the crosshairs while demands are writ large that they loose their shackles from the dark ages.

It was bad enough that Mother Nature threatened to spoil our national holiday, but what transpired towards the end of the iconic race from St George’s to Hamilton, and in its aftermath, provides clear evidence that for all the will in the world, we can still make a right pig’s ear of what should be relatively straightforward.

The result was utter confusion, fumbling explanations and no shortage of xenophobia. On Bermuda Day.

Dennis Mbelenzi, who lived in Bermuda for 12 years and latterly became a fixture in our running scene before departing in 2019, was so badly done by that he deserves an apology.

From the organisers, from the media, from the country.

In short, he was done dirty!

Having followed all the rules, including paying a $60 entry fee, the Canadian resident won the race fair and square but was literally ostracised to the extent that the lead vehicle allowed him to overtake so it could focus its imagery and commentary on those who were behind him in the “race” — including Lamont Marshall, the ultimate runner-up, who was two minutes away in the distance.

Whether the organisers gave this instruction or it was the lead vehicle operating of its own volition, it was a very bad look that pretty much said to Mbelenzi, “You’re not welcome!”

Meanwhile, observers along the racecourse and those watching the broadcast live from their homes or overseas were right to be more than a bit mystified. That confusion then turned to opprobrium when it was learnt with minimal discovery that Mbelenzi ran and finished second last year to Chris Estwanik.

Had the “worst-case scenario” of allowing an open race to allcomers not been planned for ahead of the 2022 race? If not, surely the committee would have done so in the post-mortem after Mbelenzi came within 30 seconds of upsetting the race record-holder?

No in both cases.

Instead, they took Mbelenzi’s money and then treated him like a leper the moment he determined to destroy the narrative of this “Bermudians first” event by putting distance between himself and Marshall after coming through Flatts before enjoying a victory lap of sorts through the City of Hamilton and on to the Bernard Park finish.

The “get out of jail” card displayed on the race’s official website, “entrants must be Bermudian or resident in Bermuda at least six months prior to race day to be eligible for prizes or placement”, bears no mitigation for the organisers and, to be frank, is highly suspicious — especially since the extended phrase “or placement” did not exist on the site in the immediate aftermath of the race.

The incompetence of failing to cover your tracks fully is seen when you go to the registration page on runsignup.com and discover unaltered the original wording, which has no mention of placement and allows for anyone to win the race — but not collect a prize if you are a non-Bermudian or have not been resident for six months.

This loophole is beyond farcical and needs to be closed immediately, or else there is nothing to stop the world’s top 50, 100 or 200 half-marathoners from descending upon Bermuda next year and making a complete mockery of a traditionally local event.

Dennis Mbelenzi is a bona fide rags-to-riches story in the local road running context. He arrived in Bermuda in 2007 overweight, began running nine years later to shed some pounds and quickly became competitive on a circuit that is flush more with recreational than elite runners.

His inclusion on derby day despite no longer living on island could be seen to be an act of altruism on the part of the organisers because “everyone knows Dennis”. But, as a non-resident, he is no longer “one of us” and the next hasty update of the aforementioned clause should say “entrants must be Bermudian or resident in Bermuda at least six months prior to race day to be eligible”. Full stop. End of story. No more confusion.

Former champion Larry Marshall Jr was right to decry the entire debacle as “amateur hour” while filming the latest episode of Jamel Hardtman Unscripted and while calling for rank-and-file change within the race committee. At time of writing, there has been one casualty, but there should be more.

None of this could have been of any comfort to the many sponsors, least of all the Bermuda Tourism Authority, whose chief mandate is to increase airlift to the island. But a closed race entry must be effected so as to avoid any repeat of what happened on Friday. It is harsh on Mbelenzi and the many others who don’t expect to threaten the winner’s circle, but it must be done because a true worst-case scenario would be far more uncomfortable for those hellbent on cheering “Bermudians first” across the line.

While the organisers are at it, and with the sponsors in mind, a clause mandating the top three male and female finishers make themselves available for media requests should be a condition of collecting any prize money.

Among the scenes that left a bad taste was the disdainful blow-off that Lamont Marshall gave to Nick Jones when the commentator attempted to interview him post-race. With the lead sponsor’s banner billowing in the background, that was probably the worst of the bad optics that this race threw up in spades.

There is a back story here, which relates to Marshall’s stated reticence to engage with the media after they reported on his legal troubles — as would be the case with any leader in government, industry or, indeed, sport — but, having lobbied the race organisers to do better years ago over access to increased prize money, to then shun the opportunity to say thank-you for all the “pull-ups” that $3,000 may buy looks more than ungracious.

But it is Dennis Mbelenzi who we will be likely kicking to the kerb before the 2024 edition. What’s wrong with that picture?

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Published May 30, 2023 at 9:34 am (Updated May 30, 2023 at 9:34 am)

Amateur hour

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