Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon
The top wheelchair athletes of today enjoy the same high-profile exposure and admiration as their able-bodied counterparts. This has come about partly through wheelchair participation in mass fun-running events such as the Great North Run. Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon charts disability sports pioneer Tim Marshall MBE’s journey from the rock-climbing accident which left him paralysed, to becoming a trailblazer for wheelchair racing. The fun-runs of the 1980s enabled wheelchair road-racing to flourish, and Marshall took part in marathons and half-marathons where wheelchairs were welcome to compete. This did not, however, include The London Marathon, from which wheelchairs were banned for the first two years. This is the story of how this prohibition was overturned, told from the competitor’s point of view. Tim and many others campaigned for the inclusion of wheelchairs in The London Marathon in the face of huge opposition from the organisers. Finally, in 1983 the efforts of sportsmen and women, the press, the Greater London Council and members of parliament resulted in a breakthrough just ten days before the 1983 marathon, which at last agreed to wheelchair participation. Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon reveals the tenacity and resolve required to achieving sporting greatness in the face of adversity. Tim Marshall’s story — and the legacy he has helped build for disabled sports — are a testament to his love of racing and his passion for disability equality.
My thanks to Tim Marshall for visiting my blog today with an extract from his book Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon.
Context: Brasher announced the intention to organise a marathon, on the lines of the New York Marathon, in 1979. I had come across the Wheelchair Boston Marathon, then in its 4thYear, in 1978. I wrote to Brasher suggesting a wheelchair section in London; he replied non-committedly, but it soon became obvious that there wouldn’t be a wheelchair event.
Magazine articles followed over the next few years, and early in 1982 I wrote to John Disley at the Sports Council putting the case again. He wrote back, rather irritated, saying no. But there was a wheelchair in the 1982 race, so I wrote again. The first extract follows.
Dear John Disley, My apologies for taking things up again quite so soon, but really! A pantomime horse, a three-legged affair, a penny farthing, roller skates, an ostrich, a pram ….and a wheelchair. ….After last Sunday more extensive wheelchair participation is bound to be attempted next year, and it would be far better that it were organised properly than that you try to cope with a bunch of gate-crashing cowboys. …..
Disley replied thus: Dear Tim Marshall, Thank you for your comments about the “clowns” in our marathon. [NB I had made no comment about the “clowns”, merely describing their presence or their means of locomotion]. Although we are not best pleased with ostriches and pantomime horses [why not? Don’t they add to the gaiety of the occasion?] at least they did not commit perjury when they signed their entry forms, as Mr Thornton apparently did [perjury? PERJURY! This is getting heavy! The reference is to signing “I agree to abide by AAA Rules” on the entry form- which include running]. ……Next year we will again run our race under IAAF, AAA and WCCA rules which do not admit to wheels of any kind – cycles, prams or chairs. Yours Sincerely….
Context We are now on race day, April 17th, just after the race had finished. In looking for partners to support our cause, we had approached the Greater London Council (remember them?). Faced with evidence that London was falling behind other places, both in this country and abroad, in not having a wheelchair section in their marathons, the GLC came out strongly in our support – and after all, the race took place on their roads. But they were refuted in late January 1983 by being told by Brasher and Disley that it was against international regulations to have a wheelchair race running alongside the main running race – this was a line they had stuck to for months.
I had written to the press about the issue, and the Sunday Times picked it up. Then it was taken on by The Guardian and the London Evening Standard. Eventually, 19 days before the race I was told there would be a wheelchair event, though this wasn’t finally confirmed until 10 days beforehand. I assumed that all my niggling away had eventually caused Brasher and Disley to give in. Not a bit of it. After the race I was approached by Illtyd Harrington,deputy leader of the GLC, a governor of the race and someone who had been much in favour of a wheelchair event..
(Harrington speaking)…”They (the Sunday Times )were so astonished at Disley’s reaction to their approach that they thought there must be something more to dig into. …they went to the IAAF in Richmond and asked them what was their position regarding the participation of wheelchairs in road races. (The Sunday Times): If a wheelchair race were run in parallel with a running race, that would be OK, wouldn’t it, not a problem? (The IAAF) Not for us it wouldn’t be.
“What happened next” Illtyd continued “is that the Sunday Times came to us armed with this information from the IAAF. As you can imagine, we found this very interesting indeed – we were sympathetic to your cause almost right from the start, but had been completely stymied by the ‘against international regulations’ argument.”(Brasher and Disley were called to a meeting, and the subject of a wheelchair section was reintroduced). “Not this one agan”, said Brasher and Disley, “we’ve already explained that it’s against international regulations, why can’t you accept that?” “Are you sure of that?
“Absolutely” “Well, this is what your own international governing body says.” and we showed them the statement the IAAF had written down for us. …”For months you have peddled this line to us. Now it appears there are no such regulations forbidding the parallel running of such an event, and your own international governing body says so. What you told us wasn’t true. What else have you told us that isn’t true?” [What a devastating question – what have said in response?]
(The GLC) “…We all know that, despite what you told us, having a wheelchair section running alongside a running race is not forbidden. If you persist in refusing to allow a wheelchair section in this year’s race, we may have to reconsider our application to the police to havethe roads closed for the event.”
© Tim Marshall 2018
Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon can be purchased from Amazon.
About the author.
Tim Marshall was born in 1946 and gained an M.Sc in Statistics from the London School of Economics, working at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris before taking up a position at Birmingham University. His lectureship in the Medical School followed by his appointment as Associate Professor in Epidemiology and Public Health ended with his retirement in 2006. He has enjoyed a lifelong love of sport including wheelchair racing, skiing and sailing.