"Perhaps," mused Hugh Sweeny, New York attorney and 2:27 marathoner, "the South Africans would've had better luck if they'd entered as wheelchair athletes."
The presence of wheelchair athletes in the Boston Marathon – or any road race – is so emotionally charged an issue that it is rarely approached with anything bordering on rationality. But wheelchairs on the Boston Marathon course have become almost as much of a nuisance as bicycles and dogs. On Patriots' Day, there was only one major accident involving a wheelchair athlete – she lost control going downhill and crashed into a curb. Cindy Patton, 22, of Acton, wound up in the intensive-care unit at Tufts New England Medical Center. Only Patton herself was injured, yet out of control, she could just as easily have crashed into a pack of spectators, a runner or, for that matter, another wheelchair athlete.
No one is denying the place of wheelchair athletes. They are among the most admirable and courageous people to be found in the world of sports competition, and, obviously, the inspiration they provide for other handicapped people is inestimable. There should, then, be wheelchair marathons. And wheelchair races at other distances. Maybe, on a course with no downhill runs and a clear 50-foot-wide track, there even should be a marathon for runners and wheelchair athletes alike (though a road race without hills is no road race at all). But placing these people and their wheelchairs in the midst of a foot race involving nearly 8000 people – not counting another couple of thousand who don't belong there either – tempts the fates, endangers safety and, as Sweeny says, "contributes even more to what is already a circus atmosphere." Wheelchairs are wheelchairs. Runners are runners. The methods of locomotion are not even comparable. Nobody has yet accused the NCAA of discrimination because it doesn't grant a berth to a wheelchair basketball team in the national championship tournament (although, upon reading this, somebody may).
"In a local race of three or four hundred, where there wouldn't be any logistical or traffic problems, it'd be great," thought Sweeny. "But the problems come when there's a race of eight or 10 thousand people. And those seem to be the only ones these people care about entering. We tried to have a wheelchair race, sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club, earlier this month. It had to be canceled due to lack of interest.
"Frankly, I think the problem is going to continue until there's a big accident involving a world-class athlete and a wheelchair. Then it'll change. That hasn't happened yet. But it will. There have already been so many minor incidents. For a runner, it's a big pain in the ass."
Right up there with bicycles, dogs and wheelchairs are the unofficial entries. They used to be a staple of the Boston Marathon. Harvard kids would run to Wellesley and drop out. People would run from one bar to the next, or simply run as long as they could as hard as they could, get their pictures in the paper, and be gone.