BOSTON (CBS) – The picture is frozen in the memory of any Boston sports fan or running enthusiast who was old enough to appreciate the finish of the 1980 Boston Marathon.
There is the women’s “winner,” 26-year-old Rosie Ruiz, the champion’s garland on her head, being embraced by Kathryn White (wife of then-Boston Mayor Kevin White) as then-Gov. Ed King prepares to award the victor’s medal. And on Ruiz’s face, a broad but – in hindsight – perhaps enigmatic smile – the smile, overwhelming evidence tells us, of someone who just pulled a fast one.
According to the Washington Post, Ruiz passed away in Florida last month at age 66. And while her apparent death marks an end to a confounding saga that some say forced equal attention to be paid to female marathon contestants to prevent another fake winner, the Ruiz affair can also be remembered as a warning sign of how fraud and hoaxes were to become a disturbingly common fixture of our social landscape.
Few areas of American life and culture have gone untouched.
Five months after Ruiz briefly conned the public by jumping in along the Boston Marathon course, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke published a fabricated profile of an eight-year-old heroin addict that later won the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1983, a German magazine claimed it had discovered Adolf Hitler’s personal diaries, touching off a bidding war for what turned out to be fakes.
In 1987, a black New York teenager named Tawana Brawley touched off a divisive racial episode by falsely claiming she had been assaulted by a group of white men and cops.
And who can forget the atrocious lie concocted in 1989 by Charles Stuart, who claimed a black man had murdered his pregnant wife in Roxbury, when the crime was his doing.
And with the onset of the internet era, the hoaxing business has taken off – fake science, phony cancer victims, advertising pranks, an endless parade of lies concocted for purposes ranging from profit to spite to boredom.
Brace yourself for deep-fakes in which words you never spoke can be put in your mouth, and other offenses to the truth spread through degraded social-media and political cultures in which falsehoods circle the globe while truth is still getting out of bed, sometimes retweeted by the President of the United States.
Rosie Ruiz didn’t start this relentless assault on truth and decency. But her stunt exposed our vulnerability to the big lie, a weakness that hasn’t adapted to the technologically-enhanced ability of almost anyone to make it up and spread it.
According to the Post, an old friend of Ruiz who claimed she admitted her hoax to him months after the fact told the Boston Globe that “she was as shocked as anyone when she came in first. But at that point they had put the crown on her, gave her the medal and told her she’s the winner. How could she say, ‘No, I’m not’?”
That’s a good question for us to grapple with today – with lying so ubiquitous and easy to pull off, how do we find the moral courage to just say no?