It’s a bit like the rolls-royce of long distance marathons, the Super Bowl of asphalt walkers. At the Boston Marathon, which begins Monday, October 11 after a postponement of a few months due to the covid pandemic, we come across a jumble of Olympic medalists, Hollywood stars and complete strangers from the four corners of the globe, who have come to rub shoulders with a monument of long distance races. But among the 25,000 participants in the oldest annual marathon in the world, there is little diversity. “Jogging is a white man’s sport. For black Americans, it’s a matter of security. Being black and running on public roads is not trivial. It means going through neighborhoods that are not his ”, explains Esther Cyna, historian specializing in the history of racism and education in the United States.
In February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American, was shot dead in the middle of a jog by a white supremacist in Georgia. Three months later, George Floyd died in Minneapolis below the knee of a police officer. Both cases were emblematic of the Black Lives Matter movement, which militates against systemic racism against blacks. The Arbery case, in particular, has sparked debate within the African American running community. Many said they felt unsafe during their practice or stared with suspicion.
— Boston Marathon (@bostonmarathon) October 10, 2021
“Arbery was a trigger. It aroused a lot of excitement and reopened a lot of discussions that had emerged from desegregation in the 60s / 70s, and which we believed to be behind us. Black Lives Matter has shown that these questions are still very topical ”, adds the researcher at the Sorbonne and the American University of Columbia.
From then on, there was no longer any question of organizing the marathon as if nothing had happened. The pandemic having postponed the event by two and a half years, enough to take time for reflection. “The Arbery affair was a real wake-up call. […] We wanted to be more intentional in our actions “Suzanne Jones Walmsley, director of youth and community engagement for the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), whose position was created in 2014 to strengthen ties with Boston’s black communities, told The Guardian. “There is definitely a communication effect with the opening ceremony. But it remains symbolically strong. The Boston Marathon is highly anticipated, very iconic. The world of sport remains behind on racial equality in the United States ”, adds Esther Cyna.
Among the strong measures of the BAA this year, an envelope of $ 125,000 has been allocated to organizations of runners of color, in association with the National Black Marathoners Association, during the opening ceremony of the marathon. The goal ? Encourage the practice of long-distance running among black Americans, improve the reception of black runners in marathons and allow better recognition of great black marathon athletes.
The ceremony also honored two-time Boston winner Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a largely unrecognized Native American runner. Chance of the calendar, this Monday is also Columbus Day, the day of the indigenous peoples. The organizers therefore installed commemorative banners on the 42.195 km route.
“If these great sportsmen are not known and recognized, it is because their perception intersects with racial stereotypes on so-called physical skills.” Even today, we expect more of an African-American in the sprint than in the marathon. “It’s a paradox because among the best athletes in the marathon, many are black. But few are black Americans. It’s a trompe l’oeil. As for the associated images, advertisements of the equipment manufacturers and posters, we did not see them. still there are few whites. ” testifies Esther Cyna.
The changes are significant not only for the running community, but also for the city as the marathon is part of Boston’s identity. “Boston is a fairly white city, which was built on Irish immigration. Like any large American city, it is crossed by great inequalities of wealth, which intersect with racial inequalities. You have to realize that associations like the National Black Marathoners Association exist for all areas, such as hiking or walking. To show diversity, of course, but also for reasons of security in the public space. ” explains Esther Cyna.
However, the Boston Marathon, often at the forefront of societal debates, has not taken the turn of racial openness. Many are familiar with the photo of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, immortalized in the sixth mile, her arm held back by the race director. “There was a feminist awakening but it did not lead to a full opening of the marathon.”
— Boston Marathon (@bostonmarathon) October 11, 2021
Even more, Boston’s segregationist past continues to weigh on the city and the marathon. From 1974 to 1976, white Bostonians reacted violently to federal orders to desegregate schools. More recently, in 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing, Olympic athlete and Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, an American-Eritrean, was arrested by Homeland Security when he tried to return home to San Diego. He was only released thanks to the intervention of fans, having interrupted him to get his autograph.
In France, the phenomenon is comparable. But the model of this 125th edition is not necessarily doomed to spread outside the United States. ” THEhe debate does not arise in the same way in France, does not rely on the same mechanisms, stresses Esther Cyna. OWe are already seeing very polarized reactions to events that are single-sex or open only to racialized people. It is not trivialized like in the United States. A parallel can be drawn on the representations: there is more diversity of profiles on the posters of the Paris marathon for example. Ditto for sports brands for ten years. But there is no explicit public debate with associations. Culturally, there are not at all the same implications between France and the United States. ”
This Monday, the Boston Marathon will therefore send a very symbolic message to sports authorities. “It is beyond the exercise of communication, it is a necessary and expected evolution.”