Boston Marathon Pioneered Accessibility for Wheelchair Racers

May 2, 2024

Every year on Patriot’s Day, athletes from around the globe flock to Boston to compete in one of the world’s best-known races, the Boston Marathon. Among the 30,000 participants, some are athletes with disabilities, who compete in para-athletics divisions, adapted so that they can race.

Although the para-athletics field of the Boston Marathon has expanded over the years, it all started with the wheelchair division. In 1975, the Boston Marathon was the first major world race to introduce this category, and today, it attracts hundreds of para-athletes from around the world.

One of these athletes, Switzerland’s Marcel Hug, nicknamed “The Silver Bullet,” returned to Boston this year to win his seventh race title. He sped to a blistering 1:15:32, breaking his own course record by more than a minute and a half.

“It’s very important that we have this opportunity to be involved in this race,” Hug said. “It’s a very historic marathon, so I think the Boston Marathon plays a very important role in this inclusivity.”

But times like these were not always possible. Racing wheelchairs have developed significantly since that first trip through Boston 51 years ago, and the high-tech improvements continue to further athletes’ opportunities.

“Technology in racing chairs had a lot of impact,” Hug said. “They went lighter, they went stiffer, they went more aerodynamic.”

Racing wheelchairs were once composed of a four-wheeled aluminum structure but have since evolved into lighter three-pronged carbon fiber models. Wheelchair athletes can now move faster, tearing through the course.

The focus on para-athletics has also continued to develop. The Boston Athletic Association offers categories for individuals with visual, physical, coordination and intellectual impairments, as well as subdivisions based on the scope and degree of each disability. These divisions allow para-athletes to participate with necessary accommodations.

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