It is no accident that the Boston Marathon is run on Patriots Day — a day that embodies our region’s historical contribution to our country, and a celebration of the brave men and women who made our freedom possible. On April 15, 2013, Boston was once again turned into a war zone, as it was more than 200 years ago. Some of the first people by our hospital bedsides were our nation’s wounded warriors. Their battle wounds mirrored the injuries that we had sustained on Boylston Street: missing limbs, disfiguring burns, painful scars, and rattled psyches. They identified with us, and we identified with them. They expressed anger and frustration that the evil that they had worked so hard to suppress had made its way onto our home soil. The veterans had hoped that their sacrifices would be enough to prevent the rest of us from harm. They committed themselves to doing all in their power to lift our spirits and show us the way forward. That commitment has intensified over the two and a half years that my wife Jessica and I have spent as patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
These wounded veterans want to be a part of the Boston Marathon, as a test of strength, but even more so because it is a demonstration of solidarity and a symbol of our country’s resilience. However, despite numerous diplomatic and respectful meetings, dozens of e-mails and phone calls, and personalized letters, the Boston Athletic Association refuses to welcome these service members with open arms. Over the last five years, the average field size of the Handcycle Division — the only division that a majority of these wounded veterans are able to participate in due to their injuries — is 21. By contrast, the Los Angeles Marathon averaged 47 during the same period. The New York City Marathon averaged 77. The Marine Corps Marathon averaged 82. The BAA has fallen woefully behind in welcoming disabled athletes. It says it will do better, but we have waited too long.
The BAA’s arbitrary restrictions leave athletes with disabilities feeling as though we are begging for inclusion. It has prevented dozens of wounded warriors and civilians with disabilities from applying to participate. The CEO of the BAA told us, while touring Walter Reed, that if he had it his way, handcycles would not be included, citing supposed logistical and safety concerns. But there are countless protections already in place, and we have made repeated offers, in conjunction with highly respected disabled athlete organizations, to enhance those protections in order to appease the BAA. Frankly, it is all just an exclusionary excuse.
The Boston Marathon has been forever changed. The BAA has to change too. It should embrace the opportunity to be an international leader and welcome all athletes with disabilities. Patriots should ride on Patriots Day.
Patrick Downes is Boston Marathon bombing survivor. He finished the marathon in the handcycle division in 2014 and 2015 and is an entrant this year.