Today is the 126th running of the famed Boston Marathon. Because it is a race whose reputation is eclipsed by none throughout the world, it’s natural that runners from all over the world want to compete in Boston.

Photo: Boston Marathon

Yet organizers of this year‘s race decided earlier in April to ban Russians and Belarusians still living in their home country from participating in this year‘s race. This is all part of an ongoing trend in sports to consider discipline against athletes from Russia and Belarus in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

Athletes from either country who don’t reside there are allowed to compete, yet they can’t be represented by the flag of their nation.

The issue here is whether these athletes might have any claim against the organizers of the Boston Marathon. While other sports organizations have been hesitant to go far beyond simply removing mention of the athletes’ home nation, as the Women’s Tennis Association (which has a lot of Russian and Belarusian athletes) has.

The Boston Marathon is run by the B.A.A. – the Boston Athletic Association. The B.A.A. is a private nonprofit “with a mission of promoting a healthy lifestyle through sports, especially running.”

There may be an issue here because the B.A.A. is banning individual athletes rather than, as the Olympics or FIFA might, banning a national team. In the highest levels of running, while the runners do represent their nation in some events, in these individual races, they are running for themselves.

Michael Epstein, a lawyer and close follower of the intersection between sport and law, sees that this could be the potential window for a claim:

“It would be interesting to see what a court would do with a lawsuit from a runner banned from the Boston Marathon solely because of their country citizenship and residence. A court could see this ban as an overreaching of the race organizer’s own rules or state or federal law.”

The B.A.A.’s decision drew swift criticism from The Boston Globe, whose editorial board made a strong and eloquent argument that runners from these nations should have been allowed to participate.

Describing the move as a misplaced “reflex,” the board argued that allowing runners from these nations to participate could have sent an important message about global unity. They also questioned whether the move to ban violated notions of fundamental fairness in the running community.

If any lawsuits emerge over the coming weeks, it’s going to be a challenge for the courts to decide whether this is something that merits review. A private organization has certain leeway in deciding who to include and exclude.
While this year’s move certainly runs counter to the spirit and tradition of the Boston Marathon and the mission and vision of the B.A.A., while the excluded athletes can claim a legal injury from exclusion, it remains to be seen whether a court would entertain this.

Featured Image: Boston Marathon
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