It isn't easy to raise doubts about disabled sports without looking unsympathetic. But as the case of sprinter Oscar Pistorius shows, hard questions sometimes have to be askedby / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Disabled or too-abled?
After long deliberation, the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled in January that the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius was ineligible to compete in qualifying events for this summer’s Olympic Games. Pistorius was born without fibulas, and his lower legs were amputated before his first birthday. He has learned to run on “Cheetahs”—carbon-fibre prosthetic devices which look like J-shaped blades. These give him, the world athletics governing body decided, “an advantage over other athletes not using them.”
Despite a natural sympathy for Pistorius, few people thought the IAAF’s decision could have been different. And yet several questions are raised here. Pistorius can still compete in the Paralympics, the games for disabled athletes. These have been one of the more striking sports phenomena of recent years, not to say a problematic subject: any dissenting voices have to be whispered. Lady Bracknell might deplore morbid sympathy for invalids, but even the most loudmouthed boor today would hesitate to sneer at excessive fondness for the disabled.
Indeed, disability silences all kinds of debate, as the Labour MP Frank Field learned the hard way. In 1997, Tony Blair appointed him to the government with the job of sorting out the welfare system. Shortly afterwards there was a demonstration by “extremists in wheelchairs,” as Field rather bravely called them, who chained themselves to the railings at Downing Street. Field wanted to go out and confront them, but was told by No 10 not even to think about it. There was a time when such things might have been discussed dispassionately, but then there was a time when it would have seemed curious to watch people in wheelchairs racing over 200 metres or playing basketball. Some of us still find it perplexing, even if it’s hard to say so without seeming unsympathetic. I hope I can show that’s not so by recalling two heroic figures.
The famous fighter ace Douglas Bader lost his legs in an air crash, while Peter Black, the journalist who was one of the first regular television critics more than 40 years ago, was born with one arm. Both men taught themselves to play good low-handicap golf. Even to think about that is humbling—the triumph of human spirit or sheer bloody-minded defiance of fate. But does that mean we would have wanted to watch them play in the same way that we want to watch Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington?
Long before Pistorius there had been other cases of disabled people competing in mainstream sports, mostly baseball. In 1945 Pete Gray, who had only one arm, played most of a season for the St Louis Browns. A little later Lou Brissie pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics wearing an orthotic shoe on his shorter leg. But those men were patently handicapped, suffering from a disability (or whatever periphrastic term we adopt). Pistorius presents a different problem. His carbon-fibre spring heels might actually give him an advantage over runners using their own legs. As the New York Times asked, “Is he disabled or too-abled?” If he were allowed to compete, it’s possible to imagine a javelin thrower with a prosthetic arm breaking the Olympic record.
As to the Paralympics, the very name implies a false analogy. The purpose of any form of games or athletics is “faster, higher, stronger,” and no moral judgement is implied by setting objective tests that distinguish those with supreme physical ability from the rest of us. There is a beautiful old Jewish prayer, to be said upon seeing a gravely disfigured person: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who variest the forms of Thy creatures.” The prayer does not ask the Almighty to let this person win a beauty contest.
Charity for Marion Jones
“Am I alone in thinking…?” is an old journalistic standby, meaning that of course I can’t possibly be. But I thought for a moment that I really was alone in feeling a little sorry for Marion Jones. Coverage of the sprinter’s downfall in the US media has ranged between the unforgiving and the downright vindictive. As the presidential election keeps reminding us, the Americans like to think themselves a God-fearing people, and a few scriptural admonitions—”Judge not, that ye be not judged… let him first cast a stone at her”—might not have gone amiss.
Her case is very bad. We now know that she was using steroids when she won her five medals at the 2000 Olympics, and she then lied sturdily for years But her final humiliation is so complete, from the stripping of her medals to imprisonment, that censure might now be tempered with pity, and all the self-righteous anger has tended to suggest a quite unjustified moral superiority on the part of the athletics world as a whole. Some of us who cover sport, and especially bike racing, have developed the deepest cynicism, not only about protestations of innocence from the accused but denunciations of the guilty from others in the same game. The verse about casting the first stone begins, “He that is without sin among you…” Let’s wait and see how clean the rest of the runners really are.