Wheelchair athlete hits marathon brick wall
Wheelchair athlete Ajmal Samuel has competed in marathons, triathlons and half marathons all over the world - but never in Hong Kong's premium race.
That's because the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon has no category for wheelchair athletes and has no intention of creating one for this year's event, which takes place in a month's time.
Samuel says the race will never be classed as one of the world's best if it continues to prohibit wheelchair competitors.
The Boston Marathon became the first major marathon to include a wheelchair division when it officially recognised Bob Hall in 1975. All the big marathons followed suit, but not Hong Kong, to Samuel's frustration.
'Organisers really are not interested in wheelchair athletes in the Hong Kong marathon, and this thinking needs to change fast,' he says. 'London, Boston and New York marathons all have wheelchair competitors who compete with able-bodied athletes. To ignore wheelchair athletes altogether is not the way it should be.
'It's not a difficult course or a tough terrain, it's just a matter of having the experience to handle it.'
Samuel speaks from experience as he has competed in many endurance events. He represented Hong Kong in 2006 at the All-China Disabled Biking Race, finishing second. The 43-year-old competed in the handcycling segment of the gruelling Tour De France in 2007, and in Singapore at the inaugural international Aviva-Ironman Triathlon in 2007, finishing second in his category.
Despite Samuel's great track record, Kwan Kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Amateur Athletics Association, which organises the marathon, ruled out any hopes of him competing this year.
'We are under a lot of pressure to return the route back to the government so that traffic can travel freely again,' Kwan said. 'So we have a very limited time to use the road and have a full field of runners already. Because of this we do not have a category for wheelchair athletes.'
Kwan said certain parts of the course could be dangerous for wheelchair competitors because there were varying gradients. He said London, Boston and New York had courses that were better suited for wheelchair athletes.
Samuel disagrees, arguing that he competed in the Unicef Half-Marathon which was held at Hong Kong Disneyland last November and that it had many huge gradients. Samuel coped easily, finishing an impressive 20th overall in a field of 3,000.
'It proves that it can be done in Hong Kong, but wheelchair athletes just aren't being accommodated in the Hong Kong marathon.
'It's a poor excuse. Last year I completed the Aviva-Ironman event in Singapore where we did a 1.9 kilometre swim, a 90 kilometre cycle and a 21.1 kilometre run, which adds up to 113 kilometres of total racing.'
For the cycling section Samuel used a 'handcycle' or 'handbike', while for the running part he used a 'racer' or 'racing wheel chair'.
Samuel started work as a telecommunications engineer for Pakistan's military and is now CEO of ASAP Transaction Processing in Hong Kong. He suffered a permanent injury to his spinal cord while serving in the army during a border conflict with India in the 1980s.
Kwan has, however, left the door open for wheelchair athletes to get a chance to compete in future marathons. 'It's quite difficult now as we have an increasing quota of runners, but in the coming years it's definitely a possibility. We'll try to consider wheelchair athletes' entries on a case by case basis,' he said.
Though Samuel will have to put off his plans for at least another year he believes change must come.
'I'm willing to be the first participant to get things started. I don't want to be negative and complain about not being allowed to compete. I want to do something positive and try to help the HKAAA out by taking part. It's the only way we can move forward and change the mindset.'
The Boston Marathon was the first major event to admit people in wheelchairs
Since then the number of wheelchair athletes to have competed has topped: 1,000