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26.2 Miles of Trouble
The NYC Marathon, the Roadrunners Club and wheelchair athletes

By William J. Peace

On Nov. 7, millions of people will cheer the nearly 30,000 athletes running the New York City Marathon. Those who have participated in the Marathon can attest to the fact it is a unique event and reflects the spirit and diversity of the city.

Begun by Fred Lebow in 1970, his influence on the marathon and role in the founding of the New York City Road Runner Club, the group which organizes the race, cannot be overestimated.

Wheelchair racers now have the legal right to participate in the Marathon. This does not mean they are being welcomed.

For wheelchair athletes, though, Lebow's legacy is not a positive one. Lebow fought long and hard to exclude them from the Marathon, insistent that the event not be turned into a "freak show," as he reportedly said at one controversial closed-door session.

Lebow's failure to accept wheelchair athletes was an anomaly. Other major cities -- Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles (and in Europe, Berlin, London and Frankfurt) -- have not only welcomed wheelchair athletes but created wheelchair divisions and awarded prize money. The wheelchair divisions in these races quickly became a focal point for local, national, and international interest. The New York City Road Runner Club, or NYCRRC , has been alone in their aggressive discriminatory practices aimed at wheelchair athletes. And despite efforts in recent years, they have yet to overcome their discrimination entirely.

The feud between the wheelchair athletes and the Road Runners Club goes back to 1978, when Bob Hall, a pioneer of wheelchair racing, sued the club after it denied him a spot in the race because he was disabled The New York State Human Rights Commission agreed with Hall, and he was allowed to compete in the 1978 and 1979 marathons. But the Road Runners appealed through the state courts, until the New York Court of Appeals ruled for the club in 1982; the state's highest court defined the wheelchairs as vehicles and said they could be banned from a footrace. MORE.

See also Marathon Rolls on Despite Disability Strife (Dec. 2003)

The feud between Lebow's NYCRRC and wheelchair athletes has been well chronicled. The controversy began in 1977 when wheelchair racer Bob Hall tried to enter the Marathon. The NYCRRC adamantly opposed Hall's participation; it took a court injunction to allow Hall to enter the race. For the next five years, the Club and wheelchair athletes battled on the street and in court.

In 1982, the NYCRRC won the legal right to exclude wheelchair athletes when the New York State Court of Appeals told the Club it could bar "vehicles" (wheelchairs) from a foot race. The two sides continued to spar for a decade.

Real progress for wheelchair athletes came shortly before Lebow's death in 1994, when he apparently had a change of heart (he ended up using a wheelchair toward the end of his life) and endorsed the participation of wheelchair athletes.

However, lawsuits and controversy have continued to plague the race --and wheelchair athletes continue to encounter a myriad of problems. In 1995, race officials decided high winds at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge presented a safety hazard to wheelchair athletes and, despite the fact no accessible buses were available, insisted on busing them across the bridge after the race began. The wheelchair competitors began their race three hours late, two miles short and had to wait until all 27,000 runners passed them.

While this was one of the most egregious incidents, it was not an isolated one. Other noteworthy incidents include wheelchair athletes being forced off roads at various points in the race and directed to alternative routes. They have been grabbed by race officials and their progress entirely blocked or delayed by vehicles escorting the press. They've also been forced to stop at the Queensboro Bridge to let elite runners pass.

Some of these problems have been resolved and, given the number of runners, it is impossible to expect all participants will have a positive experience. Unlike other runners, however, wheelchair athletes encounter an ingrained history of discrimination, a long-standing institutional bias, and a paternalistic attitude on the part of the NYCRRC.

It was not until 1999, in response to growing media criticism, a lawsuit brought against the NYCRRC by wheelchair athletes, and the knowledge the NYCRRC policies were in direct violation of the ADA, that the club finally agreed to not "unreasonably or unlawfully obstruct" wheelchair athletes (the suit was settled out of court).

Strong feelings persist, though. Based on the people I spoke to, two views dominate: one is that little progress has been made to include wheelchair athletes. The othee is that the Marathon is as inclusive, if not more inclusive, than other marathons. As is often the case, the truth lies in between.

If one is to believe current Marathon wheelchair director, Bob Laufer, a paid employee of the NYRRC, discrimination against wheelchair athletes abruptly ended in 1999 when he took up his post. Laufer, in a May, 2003 letter published in Sports 'n' Spokes, wrote that he considered any discussion of the NYCRRC's discriminatory past "old news"; he also rejected the assertion that wheelchair athletes were discriminated against or prevented from participating in current NYCRRC events.

It is true that 1999 heralded a number of important changes: for the first time in history, wheelchair athletes were not stopped along the course, diverted to an alternate route or detained so able-bodied runners could pass them . An official competitive wheelchair division was recognized by the NYCRRC that year as well. But just because the wheelchair racers have the legal right to participate in the Marathon does not mean they are being welcomed.

Since 1999, wheelchair athletes are no longer denied access to the media, and they are included in post-race award ceremonies. In 2001, prize money and Tiffany award trays were presented to winning wheelchair racers. All these are positive developments. It is clear that Laufer and the NYCRRC are trying to be more inclusive.

However, when the history of the NYRRC discriminatory practices is taken into consideration, the NYRRC has a long way to go before it can be truly be heralded as a "people's race" -- a moniker the NYCRRC likes to invoke.

What bothers many wheelchair athletes is the NYCRRC'S refusal to acknowledge its discriminatory past, and its penchant for blaming others for problems it created. Laufer and the NYCRRC applaud themselves for including an official wheelchair division and awarding prize money. The group demanded an apology from the editor of Sports 'n' Spokes for pointing out its less than noble past. But the group should be cognizant of the fact that the NYC Marathon was the last prominent race in the country to include a competitive wheelchair division.

A quick comparison with the Boston Marathon reveals how anomalous NYC Marathon policies are According to the sponsor, ING New York City Marathon, in 2003 the wheelchair division first-place winner got $3,500. The second-place finisher got $2,500, third place got $1,500, fourth place netted $1,000 and fifth place netted $750. The Boston Marathon began awarding wheelchair racers prize money in 1986 -- 13 years before the NYCRRC deigned to officially recognize a competitive wheelchair division. In 2002, Boston gave awards ranging from $10,000 for first place to $1,000 for fifth place, awarding a total of $20,000 each for men and women. If awards are an indication, decades of blatant discrimination have not disappeared overnight.

Two contentious issues will determine how far the NYCRRC has come in truly accepting wheelchair athletes: starting times and media coverage.

In seeking media coverage, the NYCRRC has traditionally focused on human-interest stories designed to pull at the heart-strings of the general public, the inspirational story of the person who takes 20 hours to limp through the Marathon with leg braces and the support of crutches. I do not mean to denigrate such efforts. But elite wheelchair Marathoners are every bit as conditioned and professional as other first-place finishers. In spite of this, they race in media oblivion. The NYCRRC must acknowledge the professionalism of such athletes, highlight their participation, and point the media in their direction.

The second area of contention, and the most problematic, concerns start times. Historically, wheelchair runners have participated in what can only be considered separate events. The NYCRRC-designated start times for wheelchairs are so early that an athlete can complete a race before it has officially begun.

In 2003 the NYRRC assigned athletes with disabilities starting times with corresponding color-coded bibs. There were three start times for disabled athletes: The "early start" at 8 a.m. was for those wheelchair and hand-cycle athletes. both male and female, who required additional time to complete the marathon. Others who started at this time included ambulatory participants who expected to take 7 hours to finish, as well participants who needed one or more guides. The "official wheelchair division start," for wheelchair racers using push-rim chairs, started at 9:05 a.m., followed by the start time for wheelchair racers using hand cycles, at 9:15 a.m. .

The "general start" -- the official start for nondisabled runners -- began at 10:00 a.m.

The reason for staggered start times has to do with the large number of participants and their "safety" -- a term wheelchair athletes from previous NYC Marathons shudder at, as "safety" has continually been used as a reason for banning their participation.

In contrast, the Boston Marathon offers a "mobility impaired start" at 10:00 a.m. and a "wheelchair division start" at 11:45 a.m. Nondisabled runners begin the race race at noon. This is inclusive, appropriate, and has worked as well as can be expected for any large event.

Two contentious issues remain: Starting times and media coverage.

In the NYC Marathon, elite wheelchair athletes, especially those who want to win the prize money, begin the race far too early. The first-place finisher in the 2003 male wheelchair push-rim division, Krige Schabort, crossed the finish line in 1 hour and 32 minutes, his second straight NYC Marathon win. When he completed the race it was 10:43 a.m, only 43 minutes after the starting time for all the nondisabled runners. This is far from inclusive, yet, remarkably, it represents progress: The 2002 Marathon started even earlier; that year, elite wheelchair athletes finished the Marathon before it officially started.

The 2003 NYC Marathon showed efforts are being made to be inclusive. But problems abound. The prize money awarded and the inappropriately early start times remain unresolved issues. And the NYCRRC has now decided that wheelchair hand cycles won't be a recognized division in the upcoming Marathon this November.

According to Laufer, ,awarding money to both push rim and hand cycle wheelchair athletes was only a two-year experiment. At its end, "we decided to award prizes to wheelchair racers only, because we believe that wheelchair racers are to runners as hand cycle racers are to bicycle racers," Laufer reportedly said.

One of the reasons given for excluding hand cyclists was that both disabled and nondisabled people use hand cycles. Laufer told AbleNews the Club didn't want to "get into the business of dealing with medical issues" in order to determine who qualified as disabled.

The NYCRRC would like to consider the exclusion of wheelchair hand cycles as akin to a philosophical disagreement. But it's not about philosophy so much as discrimination.

Wheelchair hand cycles are becoming widely popular, while push rim wheelchair racing is declining. The majority of disabled members of the NYCRRC Achilles Track Club -- its wheelchair racers' division -- use hand cycles (two years ago an anonymous donor gave the Club $50,000 for purchasing hand cycle chairs). Given the history of the NYCRRC, it is not difficult to conclude that wheelchair athletes remain unwelcome and view this new exclusion of hand cycle athletes as a convenient way to exclude disabled people --or at least their visibility.

In redefining what they consider acceptable, the NYCRRC seems to be once again seeking to exclude -- or infuriate -- disabled athletes.

Posted Oct. 18, 2004.

William J. Peace is a freelance wrtier. His most recent article for Ragged Edge was The Smithsonian Shuttle Incident.

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