November 8, 1999
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
For the second time in two years, Miguel Such was the first to roll across the finish line in the New York City Marathon's wheelchair event Sunday, and he thrust his fists in the air and savored victory.
But for Such and several other wheelchair athletes, who have sued the marathon's organizers for discrimination, the real victory was that none of them were stopped along the course to let leading runners pass.
"It was much better than ever before," said Bob Neumayer, a 52-year-old veteran of 14 New York marathons. "They didn't stop us at the 59th Street Bridge, and that's the first time since 1986. I saw progress. There is a long way to go, but I saw progress."
Nine wheelchair athletes, including two of the top three men's finishers today, filed suit against the New York Road Runners Club in July, alleging that the marathon has discriminated against them not only by delaying wheelchair racers to let top runners pass, but also by denying them prize money and medals, which the elite runners receive.
New York has lagged behind most other cities in Europe and the United States where wheelchair divisions have become a fixture in marathons. In the last 20 years, wheelchair racing has developed from a sideshow into a sport in its own right, with strict rules about equipment. Some elite wheelchair athletes have become professionals, attracting sponsorships and living on their purses.
The New York Road Runners Club, however, has never created a separate division for the wheelchair athletes with prizes and medals. Nor does the marathon distinguish between the athletes using racing wheelchairs pushed by hand and those using hand-cranked chairs, which use bicycle gears.
"They have to create an official wheelchair division and then they can eliminate all these problems," Such said, after winning with a time of 2 hours 39 seconds.
Such, a broad-shouldered 25-year-old professional racer from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said he was happy none of the wheelchair athletes was detained along the route as some were last year, when the police held dozens at the Queensboro Bridge for a half-hour to let the lead runners pass.
But Such noted with some bitterness that there was no ribbon at the finish line for him, nor would there be any ceremony for the top three wheelchair finishers, not to mention the lack of purses.
"Look at the publicity we have here, and go to the runners and compare the two," he said, struggling to get into sweat clothes in the recovery area. "There is a huge difference. We should be able to get the same publicity. We should be able to get some prize money."
Tony Nogueira, an artist and professional wheelchair racer from Glen Ridge, N.J., who came in third in the event (2:01:46) agreed. "To do 26 miles and have no ribbon?" he said. "Come on!"
But other wheelchair athletes said they were satisfied with the road runners club's response to their complaints. In October, the organizers agreed in a court-ordered stipulation not to "unreasonably or unlawfully obstruct" the wheelchair athletes. They also agreed not to deflect news media attention from the wheelchair event.
Carlos Guzman, 52, of Queens, was among those stopped at the Queensboro Bridge last year. "This year there was no problem," he said. "They only problem we had this year was there was too much wind."
Most of the wheelchair participants said the high winds and chilly temperatures slowed their times dramatically.
One hundred forty-five men and women from 30 countries competed, though not all used racing wheelchairs. The race started at 10:20 a.m., a half-hour before the runners set off.
Franz Neitlispach, a top wheelchair racer from Switzerland, who recently won the Chicago marathon, took an early lead, accompanied closely by his countryman Guido Mueller. Neitlispach was considered the man to beat in this field.
Such and Nogueira, who often train together, could not close the gap on the Swiss duo until Mile 14. Wheelchair racing is similar to cycling, in which competitors draft off the chair ahead of them to conserve energy and then try to tire their opponents with repeated challenges.
At the 14th mile it appeared to be a four-man race. But Neitlispach inexplicably dropped out and finished back in the pack. Then at the 23rd mile, Such made his move, breaking away.
Mueller, a 40-year-old electronic technician, who finished first here in 1979, found the strength to push past Nogueira in the last two miles, finishing with a time of 2:01:11, but he could not catch Such.
"It was very hard because of the wind," he said, slumped over his chair with exhaustion at the finish.
The first-place finisher among women was Helene A. Hines, 51, of Lido Beach, N.Y., a former physical education teacher who has multiple sclerosis. It was her first race in a wheelchair, though she said she had run marathons. Using a hand-cranked chair, she finished in 2:15:20. "They told me hold back because it was my first time," she said. "But I just went for it."
The second-place women's spot went to a Canadian, Diane Rakiecki, a 38-year-old teacher from Kelowna, British Columbia, who rolled across the finish on a hand-cranked chair with a time of 2:32:23.
The first woman to finish in a racing wheelchair, according to the official results, was Maria Rosales of Argentina, 34th in 3:31:56.
For the nine plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the day was a step in the right direction. Still, Such said he longs for a day when a wheelchair athlete will receive a gold medal on a dais in New York, as in Boston and Los Angeles.
"New York just hasn't caught up," he said, shaking his head. "You see, it's for that little kid who is sitting at home and just broke his back and can't look up to a Michael Jordan or a Wayne Gretzky. But he can look up to a wheelchair athlete."