Pistorius' Olympic debut for the disabled

Pistorius' Olympic debut for the disabled

When South African Oscar Pistorius sprints off the block at the start of the 400 metres race in London Olympics, he would be taking an important step forward for millions of disabled persons across the world.

While the athletics community resents the idea, especially on the grounds that a double amputee will have an “unfair advantage” over other able bodied athletes in competing in the general Olympics sport, the disabled community would view it as a symbolic step towards equality.

The latest to question Pistorius’ inclusion in the 400 metres sprint at London Olympics is the man who won the event in Atlanta and Sydney Olympics and created records: Michael Johnson. The sprint icon, who is said to be a ‘good friend’ of Pistorius, said the idea of someone with prosthetic limbs competing in a sport meant for the able-bodied is fundamentally flawed since there is no way to establish if the artificial limbs provides unfair advantage to the athlete over the others.

According to Johnson, no other athlete on the block will wear prosthetic limbs like Pistorius, and that should be the reason to banish him from the tracks when able-bodied men compete. Moreover, by defeating a few able-bodied sprinters, despite not having a chance to reach the finals by clocking 45.07 seconds as the personal best timing, the ‘blade runner’ will be causing ‘resentment’ among them.
Indeed, the participation of a man who had worked harder to overcome more psychological demons than the physical limitations in an able-bodied, mainstream sporting event is unwelcome despite the fact that he would only be crossing a symbolic threshold for a community that wants to compete to earn their bread.

Something unthinkable

From the beginning, when he decided to switch events and compete with the able-bodied athletes, something unthinkable until a few years ago, a persistent shadow of doubt that Pistorius has competitive advantage over the other athletes followed him.  

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its rules (“Any technical device that  incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides an user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”), which, despite its claims of not aiming at Pistorius, seemed to have been coined precisely to keep him out of the mainstream sport.

The decision to ban him from Beijing Olympics was eventually reversed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) that found no evidence in claims that Pistorius had net advantage over others while competing in mainstream events.

While he may not be the first person to have had such a desire, he is living in an era where technology is changing every pre-conceived notions and the world is open enough to give opportunities for everyone to realise their potential. “There’re effectively half a million people across the world who have unusual mind and body condition. In the past they never had technology to effectively overcome their disability; today’s a different story,” Hugh Herr, director of Biomechatronics research group in the media labs of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said when he was in Bangalore last year to take part in a semiconductor event.

Unlike Johnson, Herr viewed Pistorius’ attempt to compete in a normal sport as a way of overcoming his disability, much the same way as himself. With the prosthesis he personally designed for himself, Herr started to climb greater heights, unwilling to be cowed down by the limitation posed on him by an unfortunate accident.

If the world of sport considers Pistorius a threat to changing the established ideas, they should be even more “resentful” of Herr and his ilk, who are working more relentlessly in providing cheaper and “more beautiful” limbs for thousands to accomplish the dream of leading a normal life.

“What we do in our group (at MIT) is to build body parts that go beyond cosmetics. We would like our users not to feel disgusted by the fact that the critical part of their body is artificial, but rather celebrate it. We would like to create limbs that are beautiful like iPhones and sports cars,” Herr declared ominously.

While several disabled persons do not understand what the fuss is about in an athlete’s participation in a sport he is unlikely to win, they would not find the “resentment” as anything new. The opposition Pistorius is facing today continues to affect the community in many other facets of life, though acceptance is also becoming more widespread.

So, when Pistorius crouches before his block to prepare his sprint, he would certainly create the spark of desire in many thousands of disabled person, reaffirming their belief that limitation is there to be overcome.

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