Runners react to Boston Marathon ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes

From her hometown in Russia, Katia Zykova has spent the last several months training and meticulously planning how she could run the Boston Marathon.

In addition to a flight for race day, Zykova needed to scrape together the money for two earlier flights to the U.S., scheduled a month apart, to get the required two-dose mRNA vaccines that aren't available in Russia. Her dream, rooted in an interest in the marathon's storied history, felt worth all the cost and hassle.

"I just had a feeling that I need to be there, and that this place really was something magical for me," said Zykova.

But before she could make those flights, Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia's ongoing war has been met with intense international criticism, with nations, states and individual groups declaring sanctions and rule changes intended to pressure and ostracize Russian leadership.

On Friday, the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, became one of the latest U.S.-based groups to release new regulations in this effort, banning runners who want to race as representatives of Russia and its ally, Belarus, from this year's race.

Zykova is one of 63 runners who can no longer participate in the marathon. While Zykova said she is "disappointed" by the decision, she said she supports efforts to decry the war.

"If I think about this moment, about Ukraine," she said, "I think if it can help even one [person] in Russia to understand that this war is so awful that you cannot support it ... if it will help people to think about it from this side, I will take it."

Russian and Belarusian runners living in other nations may still compete, but only if they don't race under flags of their home countries, the Boston Athletic Association said in a statement.

In 2019, the last time the marathon was held in the spring, 53 Russian and Belarusian runners competed with 46 running under their home country flags. None placed in the top 500 finishers.

Nina Zarina, a Russian national who lives in California, ran the Boston Marathon under the U.S. flag in 2021. She said she understands that organizations are weighing a moral stance under difficult circumstances. But, she said the ban is the wrong way to show support for Ukraine.

"We don't choose the place where we were born," said Zarina. "And I hope to see in the future, for the decision that's so powerful ... which affects a lot of people's lives ... may be made based on people's actions, based on people's work, but not only by the nationality."

She's not running in Boston this year, but is registered to run the Chicago Marathon in the fall under the U.S. flag. So far, that marathon hasn't announced restrictions around its runners. The BAA's choice to not recognize the Russia and Belarusian flags followed similar decisions by the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, among others.

Dan Fitzgerald, president of the running shoe and apparel store, Heartbreak Hill Running Company, said he supports the ban, but understands the range of perspectives around the BAA's decision. Fitzgerald trains around 700 runners each year for the race.

"I do think that running the Boston Marathon is a privilege," said Fitzgerald. "I can empathize with athletes, certainly they're the people with whom I empathize most. An athlete who doesn't get the opportunity that they've been training for is a terrible experience. But I think under these circumstances, I support the ban."

J. Loui, a runner and founder of the Boston Road Runners Club, which organizes group runs and running events in the city, said he feels the marathon shouldn't be punishing runners for the actions of their home country.

"I'd be devastated and shocked and sad and angry if I was ever to be banned because my country went to war and the whole world went against the country," said Loui. "I believe there's other ways to support Ukraine and show that an individual or group or community is against Russia. I think the running community can come up with an event or a pledge supporting Ukraine, but also letting Russia know that, Russia invading Ukraine, it's wrong."

Another member of Loui's group, Semyon Dukach, said the ban ultimately seems like the right thing to do.

"The inconvenience pales in comparison to the pain that the people in Ukraine are feeling, and sanctions as a whole tend to work better when they're drastic and complete," said Dukach. "Now, I think it would be also OK for the Boston Marathon to look specifically at, let's say, the public statements of runners, and if a runner from Russia publicly speaks out against the war, to include them anyway. But I think that's just not practical."

Dukach was born in what used to be the Soviet Union, and came to America at age 10.  Many Russians are unhappy about sanctions like these, he said, and have complained about backlash and discrimination they're facing over the Russian invasion.

He said he and his wife, however, have taken action to demonstrate their feelings against the war. They started an organization called Cash for Refugees and have traveled to the Ukrainian border several times to deliver direct money to those in need.

"As unpleasant as this discrimination might be, what they really need to be complaining about publicly are of the horrors that are being perpetuated in Ukraine every single day," said Dukach. "As someone who was born in Russia, I feel it's my duty to do so."


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Amanda Beland Senior Producer
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.



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