Yesterday, in a watershed moment for Paralympic athletes, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the International Association of Athletics Federadion’s (IAAF) ruling that banned double amputee and South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, from competing in the Olympic Games. Despite meeting the qualifying times for able-bodied competition, in January the IAAF banned Pistorius from competing in these events under the claim that his prostheses gave him “an unfair competitive advantage” over able-bodied runners.
Pistorius competed in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens where he won a gold medal in the 200m and currently holds the Paralympic World Record in the 400m. After the 2004 Games Pistorius began competing in able-bodied competitions and it was then that his Cheetah racing blades came under scrutiny. In November of 2007 Pistorius agreed to participate in three days of IAAF sponsored testing to determine if his Cheetahs did in fact give him a competitive advantage. According to Peter Brüggemann, a professor at the German Sport University who supervised the study, Pistorius was able to keep up with able-bodied runners while expending 25% less energy (NYTimes.com). While no one is disputing Brüggemann’s finding, Pistorius’ camp is disputing the correlation of these findings to a determination of whether or not Pistorius has a competitive advantage over other athletes.
During the testing sessions, Pistorius’ level of exertion was only measured on the straight aways which did not account for the fact that Pistorius has more trouble navigating turns than runners without prostheses. Further, the tests did not consider the fact that Pistorius cannot crouch in the starting blocks like other runners and thus has a slower start than runners who can fit into the blocks, which are designed for able-bodied athletes.
The case around Pistorius highlights the current obsession in sport over fair-play and competitive parity. In the current sporting moment when governing bodies and politicians (think Sen. Arlen Spector and the Patriots Spygate or Sen. George Mitchell’s Mitchell Report) are obsessed with maintaining the myth of fair play in sport, it comes as little surprise that international sporting bodies, governments and even the sporting public would read Pistorius’ successes with a critical eye. The rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport has led to a crisis of sporting integrity in which no athlete is immune from the suspicion of using any means necessary to achieve competitive advantage.
Although Pistorius has not been accused of changing his body to achieve competitive advantage it is clear to see that is where this case is headed. I can hear the accusations now – if we allow athletes with prostheses into able-bodied sport we’ll soon have people cutting off their legs just so they can have a chance at Olympic glory. This may seem far-fetched, but it happens today when male to female transgender athletes are accused of undergoing sex reassignment surgery just so they can compete in what many consider to be the less competitive women’s classification.
I echo Pistorius’ attorney, Jeffery Kessler, in arguing that it’s not the Cheetahs that make Pistorius so fast, it’s his own body and his ability to adapt to the conditions around him that make him fast. And isn’t this what sport and fair competition is all about? Should all men over seven feet tall be banned from the NBA because they have an unfair height advantage over other men? Of course we say no because their body is what they have to compete with? Isn’t it the same for Paralympic athletes? Aren’t they simply playing with what they have? After all, that’s part of the beauty of sport – we all have certain skills that we are naturally better or worse at and it is up to us to use our bodies to the best of our ability.
We allow wounded soldiers who have been fitted with prosthetic limbs to go back to war alongside their able-bodied compatriots and yet the sporting world is confounded by Pistorius. It’s time we stopped being so afraid of challenges to the status quo and hegemonic assumptions of normal bodies. Pistorius acknowledges that he has a long training road ahead of him and recognizes that with the distractions of the court case it will be difficult for him to earn a spot on the 2008 South African Olympic team, but if he earns it I believe it should be his for the taking and we should allow competition between all kinds of differently-abled athletes.