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No reinventing the wheel

BAA unseats able runners

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/15/2001

He was wheeling against the wind -- onward and upward, upward, upward.

"Is this Heartbreak Hill?" Kevin Smith gasped to spectators last year.

"A few miles up," they kept telling him.

Louise Sauvage whirred past Smith, on her way to a second-place finish behind Jean Driscoll. "Can't let the chicks beat you," she cracked.

When Smith got to Copley Square, well back in the pack, his brother/rival Kelly was waiting -- and laughing. Then an official came over and told Smith he was disqualified from the Boston Marathon's wheelchair race because he wasn't disabled.

"I just shook hands and said, `Thanks for letting me race,"' Smith recalled.

But when he got home to British Columbia, Smith and friend Jennifer Brown found themselves held out as fakers -- able-bodied athletes who'd jumped in a race with those who could not run.

"When we saw the newspapers using labels like cheaters and frauds, we were completely shocked," said Brown, who also was disqualified. "Perhaps we were naive."

What goes in Canada -- the able-bodied competing with the disabled in wheelchair sports -- does not go on Commonwealth Ave., not in the granddaddy of American road races.

"We try to be as inclusive and accommodating as possible," said race director Guy Morse. "We have an open division for able-bodied runners. It seems pretty clear to me what should be happening."

By the Boston Athletic Association's reckoning, if you can go forward in normal locomotion without mechanical aid, you do not belong in a wheelchair race.

The BAA, which has made room for wheelchair racers since 1975, follows the rules of the Paralympics and Wheelchair Athletics USA. By those rules, neither Smith nor Brown is disabled. Therefore, they were disqualified.

"The Boston Marathon is at the same level as the Olympic Games," said Driscoll, whose victory in last year's women's race was her eighth. "You have to qualify to compete. Those two athletes didn't meet the criteria."

Were Smith and Brown rolling Rosie Ruizes? Were they merely out for a lark in a race that always has had more than its share of goofballs and exhibitionists? Were they trying to make a point about "reverse integration," which some say is the future of wheelchair sports? Or, as they insist, were they merely doing what they've been doing for several years: lining up alongside Kelly for the fun of it?

"Kelly and I have been doing sports together throughout our lives," said Kevin, whose brother broke his back nine years ago in a rock-climbing accident. "Just because his life took a different direction ..."

So Kevin began training in a wheelchair "so I could understand what [Kelly] was talking about." So did Brown, a physiotherapist at Vancouver's spinal cord injury unit who had Kelly as her first patient.

When they turned up for local wheelchair races, they say, they were welcomed by disabled athletes eager to have their sport grow in popularity and acceptance, just as wheelchair basketball has in Canada.

"It's becoming more common here," said Faye Blackwood, Athletics Canada's Paralympic program manager. "For wheelchair racing to be considered a sport, the only way to do it is to open it up."

Yet the idea of opening up its wheelchair division to all comers is a nonstarter for the BAA, which has kept the Marathon growing and thriving by adhering to the principles of inclusion and separation.

The race, which will be held for the 105th time tomorrow, welcomes anyone who can qualify, then classifies them by mobility. There is an open division, a wheelchair division, a visually-impaired division, a mobility-impaired division. If the boundaries are breached, says Morse, "you could be penalizing the people you're trying to help."

Until Bob Hall entered as a lone roller in 1975, there were no wheelchair racers in the marathon. (Until 1972, there hadn't officially been women.) By 1977, they had their own division. By 1984, they received awards; by 1986, they got money. Now the BAA's wheelchair champions, like Driscoll, Sauvage, and Franz Nietlispach, are as recognized as its open champions, the Elijah Lagats and Catherine Nderebas.

If the wheelchair race is thrown open, BAA officials fear, two things will happen -- confusion and exclusion. The spectators won't be able to tell the able-bodied from the disabled. And, eventually, the able-bodied will dominate.

"They potentially could do quite well," said Hall, now the race's wheelchair division director. "When there's a chance to win prize money and set records, it's probable that our progress would be impeded. I would hate to see that happen."

It wouldn't happen, insist Canadian wheelchair officials and athletes. Disabled athletes spend most of their lives in wheelchairs and are adept at maneuvering them. And their lesser lower-body muscle mass makes them lighter.

"Most disabled racers would stack themselves up against able-bodied athletes any day," said Cathy Cadieux, executive director of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association. "They certainly don't see them as a threat."

It's no joy ride

Kevin Smith weighs 50 pounds more than his brother, has full use of his legs, and has been racing in wheelchairs for three years.

"But when I compete against Kelly," said Kevin, "he generally kicks my butt."

Last year Kelly, who later competed for Canada in the Paralympics in Sydney, finished fifth in Boston. Kevin might as well have been crawling up Everest in a handcar. The fact is, wheelchair racing is no joy ride for the able-bodied.

Tom Derderian, who ran Boston 14 times with a personal best of 2:19, found as much when he entered a wheelchair 5-miler nearly a decade ago as an experiment.

"I was lousy at it," he said. "The fact that I had well-functioning legs was no advantage whatsoever. In fact, I was at a disadvantage."

Derderian had figured that wheels had to be faster than shoes. They are: Boston's wheelchair victors are at least 40 minutes faster than its runners. But not if a neophyte is in the chair.

"The wheelchair was slower than running," said Derderian. "I expected I would average five minutes a mile, but the best I could manage was six. At the time, I could run faster than that. I was really shocked at how slow I went."

The skilled disabled athlete will always beat the unskilled able-bodied athlete in a wheelchair race, say the sport's devotees.

"It's an argument that's best taken onto the track," said Kelly Smith.

The organizers of the annual Bloomsday race in Spokane, Wash., for years have allowed able-bodied athletes to compete in wheelchairs.

"I think that's fine, as long as the rules allow for it," said Driscoll. "But those other races are not like Boston, which has a prestige to it like no other event."

The BAA's rules are clear, and the race organizers say that Brown and Kevin Smith should have known that by reading the entry form.

"It was partly my fault," said Smith. "I didn't look at how strict the rules were. I accept part of the responsibility."

Everyone at the starting line knew that Smith and Brown were able-bodied; they made no attempt to hide it. Brown, in fact, had run Boston officially in 1999.

"We gave them the benefit of the doubt, because they were from Canada and they had a story," said Morse. "But they should not have participated."

When Smith and Brown reached the finish, they were formally DQ'd.

"I think my heart fell onto the ground," Brown said.

What hurt more, she and Smith say, was being called cheaters by those who'd never heard of reverse integration.

"What came out of it was that it was a fraud, that they snuck into it, that they did it on purpose to create exposure to the issue," said Kelly Smith.

Brown and Kevin Smith say they weren't out to make a statement, and they accept that reverse integration is still a controversial issue in wheelchair sports.

"People have their opinions, and I'm fine with that," Smith said.

In any case, they won't be back in Hopkinton tomorrow. Kelly Smith will be, although he did consider not returning.

"But my feeling was, if I don't go, they're not going to miss me, it's a big event," he said. "Maybe if we take small steps ..."

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