Let’s start with the obvious: Shalane Flanagan is attempting something incredible this fall.
Flanagan, who retired as an elite runner in 2019, is aiming to race all six major marathons in a span of just 43 days. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the annual major marathon schedule – which usually begins in early March with the Tokyo Marathon and concludes in early November with the New York City Marathon – was instead condensed into seven weeks:
- September 26: Berlin
- October 3: London
- October 10: Chicago
- October 11: Boston
- October 18: Tokyo (VIRTUAL)
- November 7: New York City
With five marathons complete – all in under 2 hours and 46 minutes – Flanagan’s only remaining “Project Eclipse” race is this Sunday’s 2021 New York City Marathon.
Along the way, Flanagan’s marathon journey has been covered in-depth by most major national news outlets, from the New York Times, to the Washington Post, to the Wall Street Journal.
While Flanagan’s journey is certainly worth profiling, nearly every article about her has implied that what she is doing is unique. There are no parentheticals letting readers know that – by the way – Flanagan isn’t the only athlete taking advantage of this fall’s unprecedented marathon schedule.
Some impressive competitors are being left out of the conversation.
In 1975, Bob Hall became the first sanctioned wheelchair racer to enter the Boston Marathon. He finished the race in under three hours. Other marathons followed Boston and began introducing wheelchair divisions, though not all at once.
The New York City Marathon was the longest holdout, adding elite wheelchair races in 2000, though only after the New York Road Runners Club was sued for discrimination and settled out of court.
Tatyana McFadden is grateful for trailblazers like Hall who helped provide her with access to running’s biggest stage. In 2013, she became the first person to complete a marathon “Grand Slam” (winning four major marathons in a year). She then repeated the feat three years in a row.
And like Flanagan, McFadden was excited about the prospect of a marathon-filled fall.
“I wanted to do all of [them] because it’s the first time in history the marathons will be compacted like that,” McFadden told On Her Turf in September, fresh off her three-medal performance at the Tokyo Paralympics.
McFadden has taken full advantage of the opportunity, finishing on the podium at all four marathon majors that were open to her.
The fifth major – the Tokyo Marathon – did not allow wheelchair racers to compete in the virtual event. Instead, McFadden is aiming to run her sixth 26.2-mile race at the Honolulu Marathon in December.
McFadden’s top rival, Switzerland’s Manuela Schaer, has also had a busy fall. While Schaer opted to skip Chicago, she won the women’s wheelchair division in the three other marathon majors and is aiming to win her fourth straight New York City Marathon title on Sunday.
The men’s wheelchair division has an equally ambitious field of competitors, led by Paralympians Marcel Hug of Switzerland and American Daniel Romanchuk, who are also four-for-four in podium finishes this fall.
Clearly, Flanagan is not the only marathoner attempting something incredible this fall. She is just the only able-bodied marathoner attempting it.
The point of this is not to pit Tatyana McFadden against Shalane Flanagan. Both are talented athletes who have taken on a mind-boggling challenge. Both are worthy of their own stories and their own coverage.
The point of this is to call out the ableism that persists in sports media coverage. This type of ableism is so deeply rooted that the authors who wrote about Flanagan – while failing to mention McFadden and her peers – likely weren’t even aware of their own omission.
This type of discrimination is not new. People with disabilities have long been ignored, misrepresented, and made invisible by the media.
What is especially disappointing is that the marathon majors are one of the only elite competitions in which able-bodied and para athletes compete on the same courses, on the same day. This type of side-by-side competition – and the level of media exposure it provides – is something that most para athletes never experience. Not at most World Championships. Not at U.S. Paralympic Trials. Not even at the Paralympic Games.
McFadden – who in high school was prohibited from racing at the same time as her able-bodied track teammates – knows that the fight for inclusion is a multi-generational one that will continue beyond her own athletic career.
“It’s taken every single athlete, from every single generation, to athletes now saying… ‘We want to be at press conferences at the same time. We want a pay increase. We want more visibility and coverage at the marathons,'” she said in September.
But the burden of increasing visibility and coverage can’t fall only on McFadden.
If she is racing 157.2 miles this fall, the media needs to meet her – if not halfway – then at least a 26.2 miles down the road.
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Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC