With the start of the Track and Field events beginning this weekend at the London Olympics, Oscar Pistorius is gearing up to take on the world in the 400m. I guarantee that the majority of talk will not be about how Oscar is just an amazing athlete but rather, will debate whether he has an advantage from his Cheetah Blades. The fact is that Oscar is just good. He doesn’t want a sob story or any sympathy and stop trying to reason why he shouldn’t be allowed to compete. Embrace the moment, because you will not see another one like this for a long, long time.
Oscar Pistorius, Casey Martin, Marla Runyan, Brian McKeaver, and Anthony Robles all have something in common. They all are freakish athletes that also happen to live life with a disability. Why is there a problem you ask? The problem is that all of these individuals surpass “society’s glass ceiling” for people with disabilities and compete at the highest level of competition for “able bodied” athletes. When this happens, immediately thoughts surface of, “They must be less disabled than they portray” or “They must have some sort of competitive advantage from a piece of adaptive equipment.”.
I have come to the conclusion that two different scenarios arise to create these dilemmas. We either have created a cap on ability based on our own perception of what we could do in that situation or we cannot accept to be outperformed by someone with a disability so we mentally reason with ourselves and come up with explanations to validate why someone with a disability could never reach “elite status.”
Explaining each further; first, society feels for those that have lost limbs, lost vision, been paralyzed or suffer from a chronic disability. Much of these feelings stem from the unfathomable thought of, “what if this happened to me?” Immediately, you begin to set limits on what you think you would be able to accomplish if you were put in the situation of going blind, losing a limb, being paralyzed, etc. When you put yourself in that position, a sense of “hopelessness” invades you and therefore, you step outside yourself for a moment and then feel the need to help those that you encounter with disabilities because of the idea that they must be “hopeless” as well. Put another way, we are supportive of the disabled’s accomplishments as long as they don’t pose a threat to what we’ve accepted as our own limitations. It’s similar to a corporate environment when an intern is adored by everyone and it seems everyone humors every accomplishment they make and is easy on their mistakes. Then they outwork everyone, get hired and work their way up and suddenly those who humored their rise, resent it because they are now reporting to them. Thus, when an Oscar Pistorius or Casey Martin comes around and begin to pose a threat to society’s limits on themselves they begin to question whether they are less disabled than they portray.
The second way society approaches this issue is through validation and self reasoning. This is the case more often with those competing at or near an elite level or those that seem to be skeptics about everything in life. “There is no way I could get beat by a blind person or someone with only one leg.” Accepting the fact that the “disabled” individual is more talented is too difficult. So, to come to grips with this reality, people begin to reason with themselves and come up with validations, or excuses, for being beaten. In the case of Casey Martin, he must be good at golf because he rides in a cart rather than walking the course. For Anthony Robles, having one leg makes him lighter and so that’s the only reason he is so good. Brian Mckeaver is a blind Nordic skier that qualified for the Canadian National Team and should have gone to the Olympics in Vancouver 2010 but since he must use a guide they say he must be at some sort of an advantage.
In the case of Oscar Pistorius, the talk is that he must have an advantage from the Cheetah Flex-Foot blades that he runs in. “Well he runs on springs so that must be the reason he is so fast,” people say. This is kind of ironic because it has been proven that when put on high loads; our tendons take on properties of a spring and recoil. It is well known that because Oscar does not have the flexibility of human ankles he is not able to get out of the blocks as fast. In the 200m and 400m events that Oscar competes in, this is a major disadvantage. To top it off, even science has shown that there is no significant advantage of the blades vs. human legs.
In an article by the Huffington Post (2012), Hugh Herr, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert in biomechanics and bionics who has conducted studies on Pistorius, agreed with the decision to reinstate Pistorius, saying there is no evidence the blades give Pistorius an edge.
Pistorius' leg speed is quicker than that of some other athletes but not all of them, Herr said, meaning he's "not abnormal." And in terms of the energy he uses and the way he tires, there is, crucially, no difference, Herr said. Pistorius is probably at a disadvantage because he cannot hit the ground as hard as other athletes, the professor said. Full Article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/oscar-pistorius-carbon-fiber-blades-advantage_n_1660063.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003
A summary of how society feels came from Sports engineer David James, a senior lecturer at England's Sheffield Hallam University who disagrees with Pistorius' inclusion in the Olympics on both scientific and ethical grounds. He reasons,” Sport is hard-nosed and brutal and bloody and has no place for sob stories. People want Oscar to run and do well. However, will they think the same if he wins?" James said. "I predict a backlash if he wins anything. They will attribute that performance to the blades. I think there would be real implications if he won."
These types of views infuriate me and is a great example of how society looks at those with disabilities as sob stories that only serve as “pick me ups” when we’re feeling down. It also is a great example of sweeping and issue under the table because we don’t want to deal with it. Professor James basically said that sports are a place for strong men and women and Oscar (athletes with disabilities) has no place with real men. They are inferior and should only be seen as sob stories for those that are “hopeless”. He goes even further to reason that if Oscar was to win there would be backlash and controversy and instead of fighting the issue head on, he believes that sweeping it under the table and avoiding that controversy is the better way to approach this. Avoidance is a great technique for the present but as the auto industry and BP found out with their problems, the better solution is deal with the problems right away.
To sum it up, our society has continually shown that they are not ready to accept a person with a disability competing at the top of “able bodied” competition. In fact, they do everything in their power to not allow it from happening. In nearly every case of inclusion of disabled athletes in “able-bodied” sport, the matter had to be taken to the federal court in order to get justice. A common term, “leveling the playing field” is used to validate exclusion from participation in nearly every situation. What people in society don’t understand is, when will the playing field ever be level? Sorry to be blunt but the playing field will never be level – it’s full of “bumpy pitches” and “narrow roadways”. We were genetically given individual differences and accommodated and adapted differently to what we were given. These differences will never be equalized.
How many Michael Phelps’s, Usain Bolt’s, Michael Jordan’s are there in this world? The answer is not many and the fact of the matter is they are a dime-a-dozen. In the same way, how many Oscar Pistorius, Casey Martin, or Anthony Robles’s are there? The answer again, NOT MANY! The reason that these individuals compete at an elite “able-bodied” level is not because they are less disabled or they have some sort of advantage, it’s because their just good. They are freaks of nature athletes just like Phelps, Bolt and Jordan. In fact, I would be willing to bet that if these guys didn’t have the added obstacle of a disability they would be beating people by even more.
To support this fact Oscar was recently quoted, "There are tens of thousands of people with the same prosthetics I use, but there's no one running the same times," Pistorius wrote in a column in a British newspaper last week after he was chosen to run both the individual 400 meters and the 4x400 relay in London. "You'll always get people who have their opinions on whether I should be competing in London, but they can't explain my times."
I know this is a hard thing for many people to handle but it’s the facts. Society needs to stop discrediting these individuals ability and accept that they are just tremendous athletes, ones that should be reveled in for their accomplishments.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
I am Aaron Scheidies, an elite level triathlete and marathon runner that also happens to be legally blind. I have dealt with the same debates and controversy for the last ten years as I also compete at an elite level amongst “able-bodied” individuals. The above article captures many scenarios, view points and realities that I myself have also experienced first-hand as being an elite level athlete that happens to have a disability.