The Boston Marathon's Ban on Russian Athletes Is Hypocritical Xenophobia

The world isn't made a better place by treating individual athletes as appendages of their governments.


The organizers of the Boston Marathon have told Russian and Belarusian athletes to take a hike. On Wednesday afternoon, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) said that residents of both countries who had already qualified for the elite race would no longer be allowed to participate because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"Like so many around the world, we are horrified and outraged by what we have seen and learned from the reporting in Ukraine," said President and CEO of the BAA Tom Grilk in a statement. "We believe that running is a global sport, and as such, we must do what we can to show our support to the people of Ukraine."

Some 35 Russian residents participated in last year's marathon. The BAA said that they'd generously do their best to refund the canceled 2022 Russian and Belarusian participants' registration fees.

The BAA is hardly the only group to hurriedly try to disassociate themselves from anything too Russian in response to the war in Ukraine. Everyone and everything from academic journals, film festivals, state liquor stores, and more have said they want nothing to do with Russia or its people.

Those boycotts have consistently punished Russians that have little or nothing to do with their government's war in Ukraine and couldn't stop it if they tried. The BAA's ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes is just as poorly targeted. There's no indication that those excluded supported or aided the Russian invasion of Ukraine in any way. And even Russians who have spoken out against the war have still suffered cancelation and shunning.

On the flipside, residency in a country that has committed equal or worse atrocities than Russia hasn't proven to be an automatic disqualification from participation in the Boston Marathon.

In October 2021,15 Ethiopian residents competed in the men's marathon, and Ethiopians claimed two of the top three spots. At that time, Ethiopian government forces had been accused of massacres and torture during their war with Tigrayan forces in the country's Tigray region.

In 2019, two residents of Saudi Arabia and 15 from the United Arab Emirates participated in the Boston Marathon. By that time, their respective governments had been four years into a bombing campaign in Yemen that, according to Human Rights Watch, has hit "hospitals, school buses, markets, mosques, farms, bridges, factories, and detention centers." (The U.S. continues to play a major role in fueling that conflict too.)

Indeed, residents from any number of countries with authoritarian and shady governments, from China to Venezuela, have been welcomed to participate in the Boston Marathon over the years.

The fact that the BAA is allowing residents from other countries whose governments have committed similar sins of aggressive war and mass civilian killings to participate in the marathon shows that it's not indeed acting on some universal revulsion at government atrocities. Instead, its decision appears to be knee-jerk discrimination against the most visible war occurring right now. It's hard to treat that as a particularly noble stance.

Of course, trying to exclude every athlete from a country with a nasty government would be a near-impossible task for the BAA. Even if it were feasible to have a consistent policy on when to exclude particular nationalities, that would hardly be desirable for the association. The marathon would become increasingly less inclusive and lose its international recognition. It may even lose its domestic participants. Perhaps, U.S. runners should have been prevented from competing in the 2003 Boston Marathon because of their government's invasion of Iraq?

The world isn't made a better place by treating individual athletes as appendages of their governments and sporting events as perpetuations of war and politics. 

Particularly during these times of conflict and war, we want international events where people can compete or collaborate peacefully. Excluding Russians from the Boston Marathon just moves us further in the wrong direction.