Wheelchair racers shut out of Hong Kong marathon

Wheelchair racers were allowed in the Hong Kong Marathon for the first time last year but this year only a half-marathon and three-kilometre race are being offered, a decision that has disappointed some athletes.

Full distance offered last year, an experiment that won't be repeated

Canadian Josh Cassidy crosses the line in first place at the Boston Marathon last year. Wheelchair athletes in Hong Kong are disappointed they only have a half-marathon at this Sunday's race. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

After finally winning access to the Hong Kong Marathon last year, wheelchair athletes are being kept out of the full distance race at this year's event and their lobbying efforts are back at the starting line.

Ajmal Samuel, a paraplegic who fought for years to compete in the marathon, says it just "doesn’t make sense" that Hong Kong won't accommodate wheelchair athletes who want to do the full 42-kilometre race. Sunday's event does include a half-marathon and a three-kilometre course for wheelchair racers.

"It is a setback that it's a half-marathon and not a full marathon," said Samuel, a 47-year-old businessman who broke his back during a crash when he was in the Pakistani army and came under fire in the mountains near Kashmir 25 years ago.

Race organizers and the city didn't consider the 2012 wheelchair marathon a success. It was an experiment they decided would not be repeated. The amount of time roads need to be closed is one of the main reasons why it isn't being offered.

"The government on one hand pitches the Hong Kong marathon as a big thing, a big event on the sports calendar, but at the same time they're not willing to make it really a big event," Samuel said.

The event continues to grow every year, starting out with 1,000 runners in its first year in 1997, and now drawing more than 70,000.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau.

The Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association, which organizes the event, said integrating wheelchair athletes in the marathon remains a goal. "To have a full marathon for them is always our wish, but we are limited by the resources," HKAAA chairman Kwan Kee said.

The Hong Kong Paralympic Committee and Sports Association for the Physically Disabled is one of the designated charities for the marathon.

Safety concerns with full marathon

Road closure rules limit how much time is available for the various races and too much overlap of runners and wheelchairs on the course at the same time poses a safety risk, Kee said. Then there is the issue of the course itself – it's tough, said Kee. Only one out of the seven wheelchair athletes who competed in the marathon last year finished within the time cap that had been imposed.

Kee said the government is trying to balance the interests of road users and sport lovers.

Participants in the wheelchair half-marathon will have one hour and 20 minutes to complete the course. Samuel will be among them but he's frustrated that his efforts to race the full distance were not longlasting. Other major cities that host marathons include wheelchair events and Hong Kong's government "has a long way to go" in accommodating athletes like him and in promoting wheelchair sports generally, said Samuel. 

Marathons hosted by Toronto and Ottawa, for example, have wheelchair categories, as does Boston's legendary race. Last year it was won by Canadian Paralympian Joshua Cassidy, who set a new record. He also won the London marathon in 2010.

Wheelchair marathon needs chance to grow

Cassidy told CBC News that Hong Kong needs to give a wheelchair marathon a fair chance and give it time to grow. Offering prize money is also critical to attracting elite athletes and helping to make it a prestigious event, but ordinary and young athletes need support too in order to attract them to racing, because one of them could be a future Olympian.

"I didn't have the funding to go around the world when I started racing, so I competed in whatever marathon was close at the beginning of my career. They have the potential to be a launch pad for young athletes in the area, and if they held an elite event, it would only make the local population more interested, igniting the potential for growth," he said. 

"They have the means to inspire able-bodied and disabled persons alike, and their event has the potential to be the platform for great Hong Kong athletes of the future."

Samuel is on the hunt for those athletes of the future, he helped launch the Hong Kong Triathlon Association to promote one of his other sports. A tireless advocate for the disabled, his community work earned him a prestigious international award in 2011 from someone he had read about but never thought he'd meet – Canadian Rick Hansen.

"That was quite an honour," said Samuel, who was one of nine people chosen to receive an award from Hansen's foundation.

Samuel is no stranger to overcoming the odds. He plans to continue to push for a full wheelchair marathon event in Hong Kong.

"I'm looking forward to a full marathon and we're hoping they'll do something about it for next year," he said.