Wheelchair Athlete Gains Full Access in Marathon

[Illustration by Arnel Reynon]
[Illustration by Arnel Reynon]

This article appeared in the May issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

In 1975, the Boston Marathon became the first major marathon to include wheelchair competitors. Since then, many marathons have allowed wheelchair participants in their races. Despite the growth, some races still ban wheelchairs and hand cyclists from competing, citing safety concerns for both wheel athletes and runners. These concerns were recently challenged in Montana in Stone v. Run Wild Missoula.

Joe Stone suffered a spinal cord injury in 2010. Since his injury, Stone uses assistive technology to complete in triathlons and marathons. Stone first approached the Missoula Marathon, which is staged by Run Wild Missoula, in 2012 and asked the marathon to lift its ban on wheelchairs and hand cycles. The marathon had instituted its existing policy after a collision between a hand cyclist and a runner in a narrow underpass during the 2009 race. Although neither athlete was seriously injured during the collision, local police and event organizers had concerns about the speed of the hand cyclists and the potential hazard of hand cyclists crossing intersections that remained open to vehicle traffic.

The Missoula Marathon reversed its decision in 2012 and allowed wheelchair and hand cyclists in the half marathon event but not the full marathon. Both the half marathon and the full marathon begin at the same time, but their respective starting lines are in different locations. The event organizers had been very concerned about the point on the course where the two races merge — approximately 15.5 miles into the full marathon and 2.8 miles into the half marathon.

Stone and the marathon organizers spent years trying to negotiate a resolution. Stone suggested staggering the starting times so the half marathon competitors would not be on the course when the wheelchair and hand cyclist athletes merged into the combined course. He also suggested a ban on headphones so runners could hear hand cyclists behind them. Marathon officials suggested limiting the wheel athletes to a speed limit of 12 miles per hour on the combined course. (Hand cyclists heading downhill may reach speeds of 40 miles per hour, an especially dangerous situation in a congested area on the racecourse.)

Legal516 Timeline


This controversy was the result of two good intentions. The first was eliminating discriminatory practices that exclude athletes from participating in sporting events. The other was the responsibility of event organizers to protect participating athletes from injury.

The 2014 full marathon was reopened to hand cyclists with several restrictions. The race implemented the 12-miles-per-hour speed limit over the last 11 miles of the marathon, required the wheel athletes to always yield to the runners, and banned the hand cyclists from passing in a narrow underpass. The wheel athletes also had to check in with race officials 15 minutes before the start of the race. The marathon set a cap at eight for the number of wheel athletes, but only one entered. Runners, meanwhile, did not have the same restrictions.

The 2015 marathon included three wheelchair athletes. The race eliminated most of the 2014 restrictions on hand cyclists and wheelchair athletes but suggested these competitors wear helmets and attach five-foot-high flags so the police would be able to see them more easily when approaching potentially dangerous intersections. The wheelchair athletes started five minutes before the runners in an attempt to mitigate the risk of collisions. The race organizers also provided wheelchair-accessible port-a-potties and shuttle buses. Despite these changes, Stone did not think the race was any safer for wheel athletes or runners.

Stone felt the discriminatory actions against the wheel athletes violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Montana Human Rights Act, both of which bar discrimination against disabled persons in places of public accommodation, and filed a lawsuit against Run Wild Missoula. Places of public accommodation are commonly enforced as areas of public gathering. These locations must ensure equal opportunity for people with disabilities.

Run Wild Missoula insisted that the race is not a public accommodation because it doesn't own the streets comprising the racecourse. The investigator for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry disagreed, basing its opinion on Martin v. PGA, 532 U.S. 661 (2001). In Martin, the Professional Golf Association wanted to enforce its "no golf cart" rule against Casey Martin, who is afflicted with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber (KTW) syndrome. KTW is a congenital circulatory disorder that creates pain and fatigue by walking. The United States Supreme Court ruled the PGA should be considered a place of public accommodation as a place of exhibition or entertainment.

The PGA Tour allows anyone who succeeds in open qualifying rounds to play in that tournament. Many of these qualifying rounds allow golf carts. The PGA leased or rented the courses used for the tournaments, and its rules govern tournament play and conduct. The Supreme Court ruled the reasonable modification of allowing Casey Martin to use a golf cart would not fundamentally alter the nature of the event.

Disability discrimination law does not require an event to accommodate a person if that individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Event organizers may argue that the speeds of the wheel athletes create a direct threat to the runners on the course, but there may be accommodations available to the event organizers. Examples include an earlier start time for wheel athletes; specific wheel-only lanes on steep uphill and downhill sections; an extra-wide finish line area to eliminate bottlenecking; elimination of unsuitable surfaces like grass, narrow bike paths and uneven pavement; well-marked turnaround points; extra monitors to assist with course direction and possible remounting; and eliminating headphones so runners can better hear wheel athletes.

The January 2016 settlement agreement requires the Missoula Marathon to allow people with disabilities who use hand cycles or racing wheelchairs to participate in the race. The pact prohibits the marathon from implementing discriminatory rules, including limiting the speed of the wheel athletes and requiring them to yield to all other racers. It also eliminates the obligation to check in with officials 15 minutes prior to the race and rejects the rule prohibiting passing runners in an underpass.

The settlement also mandates that the marathon board of directors and executive director attend at least two hours of training with the Montana Human Rights Act, with an emphasis in providing accommodations for people with disabilities. Run Wild Missoula will also pay the plaintiff $13,000 for the damages caused to him through its discriminatory practices and legal fees.

Although this is a settlement and not a legal precedent, its impact may affect events across the country. Race organizers will face more pressure from advocacy groups to find creative solutions and allow hand cycles and wheelchair participation without exposing those athletes and runners to increased potential risk of injury. An event organizer should minimize likely dangers facing both wheel athletes and runners.

Marathon organizers confront challenges due to the number of competitors, the overcrowding of those competitors, road conditions, hills, turns and other issues. This is not to suggest that there cannot be restrictions to increase the safety for all participants, but those restrictions have to be reasonable and not discriminatory.

Mark Dodds is associate professor of sports marketing and sports law at the State University of New York, College at Cortland.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Settlement seeks to partner accessibility with safety on marathon racecourse"


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