After losing the use of his legs in a climbing accident, medical lecturer Tim Marshall got involved in wheelchair racing – and, in the early 1980s, campaigned to open up the London Marathon to wheelchair athletes…
‘In September 1972, aged 26, I was climbing in the Peak District. While trying to pull myself up a narrow crack, I failed and fell 20 feet. When I came to, I remember thinking: Damn, I can’t feel my legs – I guess that means a wheelchair.
I spent the next eight months in the spinal injury hospital in Sheffield. They had a wheelchair sports club every Wednesday, with snooker, table tennis and wheelchair basketball. By the time I left I was quite confident in the wheelchair, and after going to the games for spinal injury wheelchair users at Stoke Mandeville a few years later, I got into racing. In the meantime, I had kept my job as a lecturer. I didn’t want a life described by my disability: it was there all right, but it didn’t define what or who I was.
In 1979, an athlete and journalist named Chris Brasher started campaigning for a marathon in London modelled on the New York race. People in wheelchairs were already competing in marathons all over: Chicago, Boston, Edinburgh, Manchester… At Chelmsley Wood in 1981, I raced alongside runners in the People’s Marathon. But wheelchairs weren’t allowed at London.
I asked John Disley of the Sports Council why this was. He told me that integrating wheelchairs was dangerous and against regulations. But in the second London Marathon in 1982, there was a wheelchair racer! A guy called Billy Thornton had applied in the usual way and come up in the ballot. I wrote to Disley again, and he accused Thornton of committing perjury by submitting his entry form despite not intending to race on foot.
At that point, I thought: They won’t get away with this! I wrote to the Greater London Council and all the newspapers. The Sunday Times rang me back: they had gone to the International Association of Athletics Federations and got it in writing that there were no regulations saying wheelchairs in marathons were illegal. Off they went to the GLC with it, who called in Chris Brasher and John Disley and threatened to reconsider their application to close roads for the next marathon if they persisted in not allowing wheelchairs. Ten days before the race in 1983, it was finally signed off. We were in!
I raced in that year’s marathon, finishing in three hours and 27 minutes. I felt immense relief at finally being able to compete, tempered with apprehension at being made to start at the back. By my fourth and final London Marathon in 1988, I had cut my time to just over three hours.
In 1985, the BBC ran shots of winners in three categories: man, woman and wheelchair. Eventually, the event attracted the top racers from around the world: something that would have been beyond our wildest dreams in the early 1980s. These days the elite wheelchairs start the race first, followed by a group of elite blind and amputee runners. Inclusion in the Marathon was a small thing in the ongoing fight for a better deal for disabled people. But we wanted better representation for disability sports events – and we got it.’
Tim Marshall’s book ‘Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon’ is published by Clink Street Publishing.
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