Monday, July 30, 2007

Disabled Athletes: Do they have an advantage?

[This post appears on the Huffington Post beginning 7/29/07]

Oscar Pistorius is a double amputee sprinter who set world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meter at the Paralympics in 2004. He is now looking to qualify to compete against able-bodied athletes in the 2008 Olympics, but the IAAF, the governing body for international athletes, has reservations about letting him. They say he has an unfair advantage, and they might be right.

Pistorius runs on two curved prosthetic racing legs made of carbon-fiber. According to the IAAF, they provide less air resistance than a human leg would, and allow him to distribute energy differently. Pistorius has agreed to work with scientists to determine whether the legs provide him with an advantage over able-bodied athletes. If tests prove that they do, then he absolutely should not be allowed to compete.

While it is a positive step that technological advances are allowing people with physical disabilities to do things that were previously not possible, that technology does not belong within the confines of athletic competition if it will alter the playing field. If the purpose of Pistorius competing in the Olympics is to show that the physically handicapped can compete equally with able bodied athletes, then for him to compete with such an "advantage" would only prove the opposite – that in order for him to successfully compete he needs an edge.

It is interesting to consider the possibility that a person with a physical disability might be better equipped to compete in the Olympics. As technology continues to evolve, this issue will only be compounded by future potential competitors. While it is easy to be affected by the courage and motivation Pistorius has shown, the IAAF needs to separate that emotion from the science of the sport. Regardless of how amazing his accomplishments, it needs to be fair for all competitors involved.

Should the IAAF allow him to attempt to qualify and Pistorius competes in the Olympics, it would open the door for future disabled athletes to do the same. It would mean a re-structuring of the system and each athlete would have to be individually tested to determine their possibility of advantage in each of their respective sports. The committee would be responsible for accurately breaking down each athlete's abilities and attributing their performance to either technology or natural athleticism. With 386 events in 35 sports, it would be nearly impossible to do it fairly.

While I think Pistorius is an inspiration to both disabled and able-bodied athletes everywhere, the IAAF is doing the right thing by taking their time and doing the research. If they decide to not let him compete, Pistorius' supporters should understand that it isn't a setback for athletes like him. It is a testament to their greatness.


Bruce said...

For years, those of us with disabilities(yes, I have one. No, it's not intellectual) were treated as second class citizens, and it literally took an act of Congress for us to get "equal" rights. Some of us need help in order to attain some level of equality, be it mechanical or otherwise, so I see nothing wrong with what Mr. Pistorius is doing. The fact that the IAAF is making such a fuss does not surprise me in the least, and I find it laughable, since they have about as much integrity as Don King or Marion Berry.

SportsGirl365 said...

Bruce, I worked with Life Time Fitness and NBC sports last summer on the Life Time Fitness Triathlon. I got the inspiring pleasure of spending a few days with Rudy Garcia-Tolson, a double amputee teenage triathlete. It changed my outlook on just about everything.

That being said, when you are dealing with an athletic monument like the Olympics, the platform needs to be level. It's not about his disability. It's about a mechanical advantage in that particular event. You're right, there's nothing wrong with what he is doing. But there's also nothing wrong with the IAAF making sure that if they allow him to compete that it's not only fair for these competitors, but that they set the proper standards for any athlete such as Pistorius in the future.