PtG Article 12.06.2009

Oscar Pistorius – changing our perception of disabled sport

Should Oscar Pistorius have been allowed to compete at the Beijing 0lympics? Mike McNamee, Professor of Philosophy at Swansea University, thinks not.

Should Oscar Pistorius have been allowed to compete at the Beijing 0lympics? Mike McNamee, Professor of Philosophy at Swansea University, thinks not. Speaking at the final full day of the Play the Game conference, McNamee was one of a panel of top experts gathered to discuss the changing nature of disabled sport.

Despite – or perhaps because of – his hi-tech prosthetic feet, the “Bladerunner” is ranked among South Africa’s top athletes. When the international athletics body, the IAAF changed its rules to outlaw his Olympic participation, Pistorius’s high-profile attempts to overturn the ban became world news. Future developments – the reversal of the ban, and Pistorius’s ultimate failure to make the national team – were followed keenly across the world.

Although athletes with disabilities have previously competed in the Olympics and other top sporting events, McNamee said, the sight of Pistorius’ hi-tech “blades” has had a much greater effect on the debate than deaf swimmers and wheelchair archers. The advent of “trans humanism” –the use of technology to improve human achievement – raises interesting questions about how we define “disability”, McNamee said. Today, the word does not always imply a performance deficit.

Do the carbon fibre artificial limbs employed by Pistorius alter the nature of the obstacles put in front of him, McNamee asked? And can his action still be defined as “running”? How would we treat, say, a hard-punching boxer with fingers implanted with Kevlar, an extremely strong material used in bulletproof jackets?

His participation, McNamee concluded, would have far-reaching implications for the future of the Olympic movement.

Ted Fay, Senior Research Fellow at the State University of New York, pointed out that athletic apartheid still exists on many levels. In addition to disability, he said, race, gender, class and sexual orientation are all factors that can entail restrictions from the game. Pistorius attracted attention not just for his novel artificial limbs, Fay pointed out, but for his desire to “move from one club to another”.

What, Fay asked, defines an “able body”? Bodies can be altered in many ways. New organs can be transplanted, drugs can change the metabolism, and skin grafts can alter the appearance. The definition of “normal” is not as straightforward as many assume, he said.

Professor Gert-Peter Brüggemann of Germany’s Deutsche Sporthochschule has carried out a thorough scientific analysis of Pistorius’s artificial limbs. As a result, he said, he is in no doubt that they afford certain physical advantages. Pistorius practices a “different kind of locomotion” to regular sprinters, he said. The blades weigh less than normal feet and give a greater energy return. Less muscular work is required at the knee and hip joints, and aerobic capacity is improved.

Ricky Balshaw, a Paralympics silver medallist with Britain’s equestrian team, asked what the difference was between his silver medal and a regular Olympic silver. A couple of hundred thousand pounds in revenue, he suggested, and a large amount of prestige.

Although Paralympic athletes are not looked down on, he said, both sponsors and the general public often ignore their achievements. Balshaw admitted that he would also like to represent Britain as an able bodied rider, not so much for the public recognition, but to be able to compete against the best able-bodied riders in his field.

Martin Mansell, a key disability adviser to Britain’s spot and leisure industry, also spoke of the continued disparity between disabled sport and regular sport. The Olympics games, he said, is touted as the world’s biggest sports festival. It begins with the opening ceremony  of the able-bodied games and ends with the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. However, if the Paralympics is supposed to enjoy equal status, he asked, why do athletes like Pistorius and Balshaw aspire to take part in the regular games?

However, he added, gains are being made in the fight to achieve parity. Britain’s Paralympics and Olympics  cycling teams lived in the same accommodation and trained together in Beijing he pointed out, which could prove a positive model for the future.

Mansell also examined the differences between the social and medical concepts of disability. “People should be judged by their abilities, not their disabilities” he concluded.

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