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 Geoffrey Wheatcroft / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
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…