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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Protecting Crippled People

I just about spit up my lunch when I read a New York Times story about Oscar Pistorius. As readers of this blog know, Pistorius is a South African runner popularly known as the Blade Runner. A double amputee, Pistorius has been in the news on a regular basis. He was banned by the IAAF from competing in the Olympic Games because his prostheses were deemed "an unfair advantage". Pistorius reappeared in the news when the IAAF ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration. Pistorius has again made headlines--not because of his running ability but because of the IAAFs inability to accept him for what he is--a gifted runner.

Pierre Weiss, secretary general of the IAAF, publicly stated that he hoped Pistorius would not compete in the Olympics for the South African relay team "for reasons of safety". According to Weiss, "It's a decision that rests with the officials of the federation of the South African Olympic Committee" but "we'd prefer that they don't select him for reasons of safety". Apparently Weiss's concern is that since only the first leg of the 4x400 meter relay race is run in lanes Pistorius might injure himself or other runners if he ran in a pack. The spokesman for the IAAF, Nick Davies, explained further that "It is a cautionary note. It is one of the few events where there is physical contact between athletes. You are jostling, crouched down at the line waiting for the baton in a group lined up hip to hip".

The reason I almost spit up my lunch is that for decades disabled were prevented from doing a myriad of ordinary things for reasons of "safety". Disabled people were barred from public schools because they were deemed a fire hazard. That is, the presence of a disabled child might prevent a quick evacuation of a school building or classroom. Of paramount concern was the safety of all children. Disabled people were barred from flying on commercial planes until the Air Carrier Access Act. It was thought disabled people represented a flight safety risk. These are just two examples of where "safety" was used to as a form of social oppression. In the exact same way, the IAAF is trying to oppress Pistorius--what exactly is the safety risk? I am sure Pistorious has fallen during his racing career. I am also sure he has gotten up off the ground as well. Likewise, those he is competing with and against have surely fallen in a race. So what if Pistorius falls--is this a reason to ban him from running? In my estimation, no. To me, the IAAF objects to Pistorius inclusion because he does not represent the symbolic ideal they want to project. The first excuse the IAAF tried, that Pistorius's prostheses gave him an unfair advantage failed, and now they are pulling out yet another well worn excuse--we must protect the "safety" of a disabled person. The subtext, what is not said, is that Pistorius should know his social role, specifically be a dependent docile disabled person grateful for society's largesse.
The end result is that the IAAF is shocked and amazed Pistorius has rights and the ability to assert them.

It is unfortunate that the IAAF has not expressed any interest in taking even cursory glance at how disabled people have been ostracized by society. Had they done so, I doubt the IAAF would have fought so hard to ban Pistorius from running in the Olympics. To me, the saddest part of this story, what is lost or only mentioned in passing, is that Pistorius has not reached the qualifying standard. His personal best time is over a half second shy. This is a legitimate reason for Pistorius not making the South African team, particularly if another runner, with or with two legs, can run faster. The fact Pistorius runs with prostheses is not relevant for at issue is an individual's ability and speed.


Sarah Heacox said...

I just saw this article and I was cruising over here to see if you had written about it, and lo and behold! I agree, it is a ridiculous and offensive thing to say to a world-class athlete. It does make it look like they are targeting Pistorius for having the audacity to be a successful person with a disability.

By the way, since Pistorius is one of the top four male runners in SA in the 400 meters, he IS still eligible for the 4x400 m relay team (as of July 17). He didn't qualify for the solo event but there is a decent chance he will be picked for the relay!

william Peace said...

Sarah, You are 100% correct that Pistorious is a top runner in South Africa and could be picked for the 4x400 relay. I sincerely hope he is selected and that politics will not prevent him from running. I find the IAAF position hard to fathom. Perhaps the IAAF refusal to consider Pistorius a world class runner reflects a cultural bias against all people with a disability. This is speculation on my part though.