The BAA Has Nothing to Fix

Several days ago, this article began making the rounds on social media feeds ( causing Tom Grilk, the chief executive officer of the Boston Athletic Association to issue a public apology to Achilles International, the governing body of the Boston Marathon handcyclists – an apology many athletes with disabilities feel is unwarranted and unnecessary. As athletes competing in the professional wheelchair division, and advocates of the disability rights movement, Brian Siemann and I feel compelled to represent the other side of the argument. With nearly 30 years of combined wheelchair racing experience, we have traveled the world racing road and track events on five continents and competing in three Paralympic Games as members of Team USA Track and Field.


The author of the piece above frames his opinion in a manner to make readers believe that the BAA is discriminating against individuals with disabilities through their lack of recognition of the handcycle division. He uses wounded warriors and victims of the Boston Bombing in an attempt to strengthen an argument riddled with logical fallacies. The issue here is not about wounded veterans, victims of the Boston Marathon bombing or unequal treatment of individuals with disabilities. The issue is straightforward – handcycles are bikes with gears, and any athlete who chooses to use a handcycle in a running event does not deserve the same recognition as an athlete using a pushrim chair. 


To the credit of the Boston Globe, they reported on assumed discrimination by the BAA against athletes with disabilities. While people with disabilities face some of the highest rates of discrimination compared to other marginalized populations, this is NOT one of those instances. The reason the winner ofthe handcycle division has never received a victory ceremony for finishing the Boston Marathon, or any other major marathon, is that their division exists as an exhibition and quite frankly has never belonged in ANY marathon event.  Pushrim racing and handcycling are two distinct sports with major differences – the largest being that handcycles are bikes with gears, whereas a pushrim chair has no gears. The only similarity between the two is that they both are adapted pieces of equipment used for competition. It’s absurd to envision a situation where an able-bodied runner, unable to compete in the Boston Marathon due to injury, demand race directors allow him/her to complete the course on a bike. And if for some reason hell were to freeze over and the athlete were allowed to compete on a bike, the race definitely would not recognize the finish of the athlete with a special ceremony. 


Articles like this reinforce a systemic problem that does nothing to advance the disability rights movement. It reaffirms the idea that people with disabilities are “special” and deserve rewards for anything they do. It is an outdated, patronizing attitude built on pity that is being bolstered by these handcycle athletes. 

The inclusion of victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and veterans who compete in handcycles is troubling in that plays on the public’s emotions attached to this population, and distorts the purpose of the piece. If either group chose to participate in racing wheelchairs – the sport equivalent to running - they would receive the same support and accolades as pushrim athletes. It should be noted that ALL finishers of the race receive a finisher medal upon successful completion of the course. Instead, the article uses emotion in place of facts, to distract from the real issue. 


The BAA and World Marathon Majors have been more than accommodating in their willingness to allow handcycles to compete in a running event. Achilles International and other handcyclists are asking for, and expecting, special treatment merely because they are a group of athletes with disabilities. Marathons represent an easy target for groups like Achilles International to shout discrimination as they rely on uninformed media coverage to push their agenda. Many marathons in the professional racing circuit allow sub-elite handcyclists to compete as an exhibition, but do not formally acknowledge the division. Official recognition leads to legitimacy; removing the performance cap, growing the field size, and further complicating the issue of whether or not bikes belong in a running event. The handcycle division then requires formal results, podium ceremonies, and a prize purse. There is no middle ground on this issue – the event is either an exhibition, or competitive event. 


There are plenty of competitive cycling events that handcyclists are allowed to compete in under the International Cycling Union (UCI). Historically, handcycles have been welcomed with open arms at cycling events – where they belong. If organizations like Achilles International focused their efforts on building relationships with other major cycling events in the United States, rather than forcing their way into established running events with claims of discrimination, their athletes could receive the accolades they deserve for completing an event within their chosen discipline. By trying to force their way into the major marathons, Achilles International and other like-minded organizations are diluting one sport in favor of their own. We’ve reached a point where the exhibition bike event is detracting from the pushrim competition. The BAA is being hammered in the press for their inability to recognize handcycle finishers, when handcyclists shouldn’t even be competing there in the first place. They are allowed to run the course as an exhibition, which is more than appropriate and generous.


The issue with Achilles International is not that athletes with disabilities are being excluded, but rather, that they are demanding special treatment. Disability or not, one cannot claim discrimination any time they are told no. Athletics and handcycling are two different sports with different rules and equipment, and to ask either governing body to adjust to accommodate the other is unfair to the athletes who have worked to be treated and measured the same as their able-bodied peers in their respective sports.