Wheelchair participants say cut-off time 'unreasonable'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 10:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 4:25am

Wheelchair athletes have blasted marathon organisers for setting "unreasonable" and "unnecessary" time limits, which kept four of the six competitors from finishing yesterday's 10-kilometre race.

Organisers insisted the measures were in place for the safety of both wheelchair athletes and runners, but this was questioned by some competitors, who said the time limits were too demanding for amateur athletes and undermined the inclusive ethos of the race.

"Not everyone taking part is an elite athlete. They come from different categories, so the organisers need to take care of everybody," said Samuel Ajmal, 48, who was disqualified near the end of the race.

"Some people just want to participate, so you have to also give them a chance."

Athletes were required to finish the first five kilometres in 20 minutes, pass the 9.3-kilometre mark within 35 minutes and finish in 40 minutes. Those who failed were asked to leave the course.

Ajmal said he would have finished within 40 minutes had his wheels not been punctured two kilometres into the race.

"When they prepare the route, they need to make sure everything is clean," said Ajmal, an executive of a Hong Kong-based technology company, who has competed in the marathon on three other occasions.

Yesterday's event was the first time the marathon had included a 10km wheelchair category. In the past two years there have been full and half-marathon distances for wheelchair racers, and organisers said they were viewing the 10km race as a "trial" to see which distances worked best.

Another athlete disqualified close to the finish line was Lai Chi-wai, a former champion at the Cheung Chau bun festival who was paralysed from the waist down in an accident.

"I thought they would allow me to finish the race, since I was probably already past nine kilometres. I do hope the organisers at least allow us a bit more time to finish the race next year."

The time limits were defended by William Ko Wai-lam, chairman of the organising committee, who said the checkpoints were for everyone's safety.

"If [wheelchair athletes] who can't make it to the checkpoint within 35 minutes still want to continue and climb the Tai Hang Road flyover, it may be dangerous to the athletes themselves and to other runners," Ko said.

But Fung Ying-kei - the champion of this year's 10km wheelchair race, who finished in about 33 minutes - said that able-bodied runners and wheelchair athletes often competed side-by-side in overseas marathons without posing safety problems.

Fung, a retired fencer, urged the organisers to either allow wheelchair participants more time or to remove the checkpoints, which he said "do not serve much purpose".

"The marathon is supposed to be an activity that unites everyone," he added.

Cheung Kai-shing lost part of his leg to bone cancer a few years ago, but that was not enough to stop him from taking part in the 10-kilometre run.

With his right leg amputated below the knee, the 27-year-old wears a carbon fibre prosthetic.

"It still hurts my knee when I run," Cheung said. "I don't really care about time - as long as I can finish, I'm happy."