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Wheelchair racers merit our attention, not our pity

I would like to put in a good word for George Murray. You haven't heard of him? His picture has been on the Wheaties box. He has won the Boston Marathon twice. He has broken four minutes for the mile. In his heyday he had the same agent as Arnold Palmer.

Murray, 39, is a wheelchair runner. That's right, runner, as in athlete. They don't make many athletes like George Murray—except for maybe Andre Viger and Candace Cable-Brookes and hundreds of other wheelchair racers whose names are equally obscure. I'm not here to tell you how brave and noble these people are, just that many of them seem to have a better perspective on sports than other athletes—and that maybe we can learn from them.

I've seen enough of these racers in action not to feel sorry for any of them. Murray? He was paralyzed from the waist down at age 14 when he tripped in the woods and the gun in his holster went off. sending a bullet into his spine. I doubt I could have handled that. Murray did. He once got into a barroom argument over a game of pool and persuaded his able-bodied opponent to sit in a spare wheelchair so the two could fight fairly. Murray then proceeded to beat the daylights out of the guy.

I thought about Murray as I watched the disastrous wheelchair start of this year's Boston Marathon. You probably saw the footage. One wheelchair runner hit a bump in the pavement, flipped and caused a chain-reaction crash that sent three others to the medical tent. It was a frightening spectacle—bodies flying, wheelchairs careening out of control at 30 mph on a rain-slick downhill stretch of pavement.

"That's why we don't allow wheelchairs in the New York City Marathon," the director of that race, Fred Lebow, told me as I watched the crash replayed on a big screen at the marathon press center. "They're too dangerous."

That crash was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the sport of wheelchair marathoning Boston is its pinnacle, its showcase. Back in 1975, Murray's forebear, a 24-year-old polio victim named Bob Hall, set off a marathoning revolution by becoming the first wheelchair racer to complete Boston. Since then the sport has seen dramatic improvements in equipment (the current racing "machines" weigh scarcely one fourth as much as Hall's 50-pound clunker), larger fields and even the introduction of prize money. This year the men's and women's wheelchair winners at Boston received $5,000 apiece.

But the crash was the only wheelchair news anyone noticed. It set off new cries to ban wheelchair racers from open marathons. That's both sad and absurd. All wheelchair racers ask is a chance to compete—that is, to fight like hell to beat each other over the toughest marathon courses in the world. Far more perilous crashes occur in bicycle, harness and auto racing. A top able-bodied marathoner, Rob de Castella, also fell at the start in Boston this year. He was nearly trampled by a pack of 6,000 footracers.

I have a friend in Dallas who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in the mid-1970s. She's a terrific tennis and basketball player. Her theory on the typical fan's attitude toward wheelchair sports is rather blunt. "People watch sports because they dream of being great athletes," she says. "That's why it's so hard for us to get any recognition. Nobody dreams about being a great athlete in a chair."

She has a point. But climb into a wheelchair sometime. I did once. A friend with multiple sclerosis let me try out her motorized, scooter-type chair. I remember I wanted it to go faster. Murray and other wheelchair runners share that urge. Murray can travel 21 mph on a straightaway, without a motor.

Murray missed Boston this year to undergo sinus surgery. That left the race to Viger, 34, a Canadian, and Cable-Brookes. 32, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., both of whom were paralyzed in car accidents as young adults. Upended in the opening crash, Viger was helped up by spectators and took off furiously. Using bicycle drafting methods, he worked his way to the lead by the 13-mile mark and went on to his third Boston victory in four years, in 1:55:42. Cable-Brookes, who lost a tire at the start, quickly put on a spare, inflated it with a CO2 cartridge and sprinted to the front of the women's field. With a time of 2:19:54 she won her fifth Boston title by nearly eight minutes.

Afterward, someone asked the men's runner-up, Jim Martinson, a 40-year-old Vietnam veteran who lost both legs in combat, how much longer he intended to compete. "Well." he replied with a wry smile, "they say an athlete's legs are the first thing to go. I think I'll be around for a while yet."

I say forget about the crash. Remember the people who got up.