Organisers of the Tauranga International Marathon have backed their decision to let banned runner Brendon Keenan compete in their non-sanctioned event - and would welcome him back next year.
Event promoter Aaron Carter knew the Rotorua policeman was in the second year of a four-year suspension from 'all sport' after admitting to importing the drug Erythropoietin - more commonly known as EPO - which can be used to increase red blood cell production and is illegal under sport anti-doping rules.
But because his ban only relates to 'organised sport under the guise of a national body', Keenan was free to enter last Saturday's race in Tauranga - run by Carter's company Total Sport - as it's not an officially sanctioned event by Athletics New Zealand.
Keenan recorded a time of 02:58:19 in finishing ninth overall, and winning the male 40-44 years section.
Athletics New Zealand and Drug Free Sport New Zealand have called on event organisers to adopt a firm stance, to ensure the integrity of all races.
However, Aaron has a different perspective.
"I totally appreciate their position, that's their job, their underlying values and principles of business would put them in that position," he says. "But we don't adopt that view.
"Our stance is pretty clear - we're a company that's all about participation. And one of our core values is being inclusive and trying to create events that have a broad appeal to a wide variety of people.
"We don't have an association with Athletics New Zealand for any of our events."
Aaron, whose company stage around 20 events a year, says there wasn't a blanket open-entry rule, but that it comes down to a case-by-case basis.
And in Brendon's case, Aaron was satisfied due diligence had been done prior to the race, having spoken to people who knew him, and read the full background about his situation.
"I believe that it was just an unfortunate series of events," Aaron says of what led to Brendon's ban. "I believe that he probably made a naive decision, and I think he would agree with that.
"What's important to me is that he made that decision based on trying to deal with a health issue, and ended up buying a product that he shouldn't have. And then I think [it was creditable] the way in which he dealt with that when it was found, and the fact that he told them to destroy it.
"Had he actually purchased products, taken them to improve his performance, that would change things for us.
"He's been really dragged through the wringer, I actually just think it's a bit sad.
"He made a mistake, he's paid for it over and over and over again, it's affected his life in a number of ways. And I believe him."
On Monday Aaron spoke for the first time to Brendon, who he says would be welcome to future events, provided they were still detached from Athletics New Zealand.
While the Tauranga race has the word 'International' in its name, Aaron said it was more of an "aspirational" title, as they look to target more overseas entrants in future.
With around 1200 competitors across the various distances on offer, Aaron noted it was an event far smaller than the likes of the Queenstown or Auckland marathons, which attracted around 10,000 and 14,000 respectively last year, and that at this point he couldn't see too much benefit to Athletics New Zealand for it to be partnered with them.
No regrets for runner-up
Meanwhile, the runner who finished second to Brendon in the 40-44 years section - Tauranga's Matt Varley - isn't holding a grudge.
"He was allowed to run, so that's all fair and square," says Matt, who overtook Brendon around the 17km mark, but then had him pass him with around 2km to go and eventually finished 48 seconds behind, in 02:59:07.
Matt was competing in his ninth marathon and he had no particular goal of winning the age-group, but wanted to run sub 02:58:00. While he's 100 per cent opposed to performance enhancing drugs, he didn't feel cheated.
"I messed up my race, I ran out too hard," he says. "So the reason why I came second wasn't because of him, it was because of me.
"For me, the marathon's a real personal race. You do your best on the day, and your best is for you.
"It is what it is. It's a friendly run for me in my hometown, I enjoyed it, my family were there.
"At the level I compete at, if somebody wants to do that, really, it's on them. I'm not here to judge that."
Additional reporting Stuff.co.nz