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BAA to honor handcycle winners, expand field

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File)

The first athletes to cross the finish line at Monday’s Marathon — veterans and bombing survivors who compete using handcycles — will now be honored the same way runners and wheelchair racers are: with wreaths, prize money, and the playing of the men’s and women’s winners’ national anthems.

Under pressure from marathoners with disabilities, politicians, and the public, the Boston Athletic Association on Wednesday announced changes to the accommodations for handcycle racers, most of whom are wounded war veterans or survivors of the Marathon bombings.

Under the agreement, the field will double from 30 handcyclists this year to 60 in 2018. And starting this year, winners will receive $2,500 in prize money — the highest total in the country, according to a news release.

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“These improvements to the Boston Marathon will send a signal of inclusion throughout the world,” said Patrick Downes, who lost a leg in the 2013 attack and will compete in the Marathon using a handcycle for the third time this year.

Other changes will streamline the registration process and make transportation to the start line in Hopkinton simpler for those with disabilities and expensive equipment.

The announcement came a day after BAA chief executive Tom Grilk posted an apology on the association’s website, taking responsibility for comments that “caused certain athletes with disabilities and their families to feel disrespected.”

After what advocates said were years of behind-the-scenes attempts to work with the BAA, two columns in the Globe last week stoked widespread criticism of the race’s organizers. Downes, who wrote one of the columns, said he decided to speak out about the issue after being unable to convince organizers to provide better accommodations for handcyclists.

Handcycles are powered by riders’ arms, allowing racers with certain disabilities to pilot the three-wheeled vehicles effectively. In addition to veterans and bombing survivors, the handcycle field at the Marathon provides limited slots for others with disabilities.

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But Janet Patton, director of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, said the field was not large enough to accommodate veterans, wounded in war, who hoped to compete in the race. Long revered in runners’ circles, the Marathon’s recent history makes it uniquely important to competitors who lost limbs in war, some of whom have found a kinship with those injured in the bombing.

“Everybody wants to be seen and heard, and for years the athletes with disabilities that Achilles serves haven’t felt that from the BAA,” Patton said. “It is nice to now see this moving in the right direction.”

Tom Davis, an Army veteran who lost a leg in Iraq and won the handcycle division in 2013, said he was looking forward to the first Marathon with the new accommodations in place.

“It’s going to be great to be able to just show up and get on the bike,” Davis said.

“The Boston Marathon is one of our City’s proudest and most honored traditions — and for the Marathon to represent Boston, it needs to respect and include all athletes,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a news release.

“It is really a special bond that we’ve seen,” said State Representative Dan Cullinane of Dorchester, who last week sent a letter signed by 71 other legislators and seven Boston city councilors, demanding concessions and better treatment of handcyclists.

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Cullinane said the biggest cheers he hears on Marathon day are often reserved for veterans and survivors competing with disabilities.

“It’s so important that they be really welcomed and honored and included,” Cullinane said Tuesday night, as word of the apology and pending changes spread. “They add so much to that day.”


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.