If you’re a dedicated distance runner or you’ve spent any amount of time living in the greater Boston area, you know what a big deal the Boston Marathon is. You knew that long before the finish line bombings in 2013 that placed the event in the discourse of the national public. For runners, doing Boston is a validation of athletic self, one of the few races that maintains strict qualifying times. For residents, Marathon Monday is the city’s biggest and best block party, one that ends with the Red Sox at Fenway and further solidifies the town’s inflated self-concept.
This year, there’s one group that will not participate in the April 18 running of the event, no matter how fast their qualifying times nor registration status. That group is runners coming from either Russia or Belarus, specifically residents of either country that live in their borders. Non-residents that live either country can run but can’t run under their flag. This edict came just one week ago on April 6, essentially as athletes are in the final throes of preparation, or as we say tapering, after likely months or years of training. Refunds will be given – although obviously not for travel – and marathon officials offered their support of Ukraine and expressed its outrage of Russia’s invasion. It’s not clear how many athletes this actually impacts out of the around 20,000 registered to run, but last year, there were about 35 people from Russia registered for the race that was inevitably cancelled. So it’s unlikely you’ll notice much of a difference.
Talking about Russia and sporting bans is kind of like talking about social media. It’s way more than just one thing. For example, most Russian sports bans are because the Nation’s long history of performance enhancing drug use, which is why Russian Olympic athletes currently compete under the label of Russian Olympic Committee instead of the Nation’s flag. It’s hard not to support this exclusion, if you have any intention of maintaining some form of integrity to whole affair. And yes, I get the hypocrisy. More recently since the invasion of Ukraine, global sporting federations – like soccer’s FIFA and UEFA – have banned Russian teams from competition, which could keep them from this year’s World Cup, among other things. The International Ice Hockey Federation has banned Belarus and Russia from competition and already pulled the 2023 world junior hockey championships from Russia. There’s more, and I assume more to come. It’s neither surprising not particularly unfair – particularly when hosting an international sporting event is something of a reward and affirmation. And while it does feel at times unfair for sports teams from one country to be penalized because of the actions of their government, it’s also important to recognize that those teams are largely competing for the glory of their nation. Meaning, if the Russian soccer team wins the World Cup, Russia wins it as well. Such is the crossfire of global team sport, which is anything but fair. Those of us old enough to remember Zola Budd’s journey from South Africa to Zimbabwe and the resulting Olympic chaos can second that.
Which brings us to the case of the Boston Marathon, where the Boston Athletic Association has chosen not to ban a team or simply a flag, but rather individual athletes hailing from two countries. These aren’t athletes likely to win the race, but rather simply to compete. As with aforementioned sanctions, this move is done, supposedly, to further isolate Russia and, one might hope, help to end the war. And perhaps that’s possible. Yet we should at least acknowledge than when we do that and ban individuals from the communal and global engagement of sport, we’ve also largely made each induvial athlete something of a soldier, or at the very least a political operative. And as much as sport will always hold something of a war metaphor, I’d always hoped that we could distinguish that from its reality. This ban seems to blur that line.
Do I think the ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Boston Marathon was a step to far? With all due respect to those who disagree and empathy to those affected by this atrocity, I think I do. Do I think they should be able to compete under a Russian flag? Absolutely not. And do think this is just the beginning of sport returning to its weaponized past? Unfortunately, yes.
For the time being, enjoy the Boston Marathon, if you’re fast enough to be there. As you already know, it’s quite a big deal.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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