Search This Blog

Friday, January 11, 2008

Oscar Pistorius Fights for his Rights

According to AP reports, Oscar Pistorius is going to contest the IAAF ruling that he cannot compete in the Olympics. Pistorius will bring his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. I admire Pistorius--not for contesting the IAAF conclusions that ban him from competing but for the larger framework in which he has based his argument. AP reports quote Pistorius: "I feel it is my responsibility, on behalf of myself and all other disabled athletes to stand firmly and not allow one organization to inhibit our ability to compete using the very tools without which we simply cannot walk let alone run".

I am interested to see how the media reacts to Pistorius stance. Sadly, I am not hopeful a nuanced view will prevail. Judging by reports and columns already published in the New York Times Pistorius' cause will be demeaning. The IAAF is already attacking Pistorius claiming they have no idea what his motivation is. Like any other athlete with or without legs, Pistorius dreams of competing in the Olympics. As to the IAAF claims that Pistorius prothesis give him an unfair advantage, I suggest they do a little bit of reading about the needless social obstacles disabled people are forced to overcome.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sport, Disability, and Media Distortion

Avid golfers probably recall the name Casey Martin. They likely remember Martin was the professional golfer who fought for the right to use a golf cart on the PGA tour. In 1997 Martin sued the PGA under the ADA arguing that a golf cart was a workplace accommodation. Martin's case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, much to the dismay of the PGA, the court ruled Martin was correct.

I have not thought about Martin until this morning when I read the New York Times with my coffee. In the sports section I was interested to read a story about Oscar Pistorius (Study Suggests That Amputee Holds Unfair Advantage). Very few Americans know who Pistorius is. I have heard the name and know he is a world class paralympic sprinter from South Africa. I only know this much because Pistorius has had the nerve to compete and beat some bipedal runners. In short, he is a world class athlete but this is not why Pistorius is controversial. Pistrorius wants to compete in the Olympics against able bodied runners. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track's governing body, has been and remains opposed to including Pistorius. Even though there is no scientific evidence, the IAAF claims Pistorius' high tech prosthesis called cheetahs give him an unfair advantage over able bodies athletes. The chances of Pistorius ever competing in the Olympics are a long shot at best.

According to the New York Times, the IAAF spent $50,000 researching the Pistorius case and concluded that any disabled athlete that wants to compete against able bodied athletes must prove that any adaptive device such as Pistorius' prosthetic legs does not give them an advantage over able bodies athletes. The IAAF conclusion mirrors recent Supreme Court decisions, especially the Sutton Trilogy, that requires disabled people to prove they are in fact disabled (in the eyes of the court it is possible to be too disabled or, conversely, not disabled enough). When I made this connection between the IAAF and the Supreme Court I realized not much has changed when it comes to the perception of disabled athletes and how they are portrayed in the media.

Disabled athletes and adaptive sports provide mainstream media outlets with endless fodder for what I call feel good stories. Disabled people know what I am writing about--the dreaded 90 second piece at the end of the national news that portrays the "remarkable, "heart warming" story about a disabled person who finishes a marathon or some other athletic event. What is celebrated is not the athletic achievement but the ability of a person to "overcome" obstacles that prove the person in question is amazing. Reducing the accomplishments of disabled athletes to nothing more than such a feel good story is nothing short of demeaning. It reinforces every negative stereotype about disability and conveniently ignores the fact the overwhelming number of problems disabled people encounter are social. At issue is not a disabled person's ability but rather how they handle a specific physical disability. Thus Martin's athletic skills are reduced to a discussion about his request for a golf cart or Pistorius' use of high tech prosthesis. Both men violated a social norm--they are too good. They are significantly better than other disabled athletes and, worse yet, capable of beating able bodies athletes. This does not fit anywhere within the realm of "feel good stories". The result it that the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets do not know what to make of athletes such as Martin and Pistorius. In contrast, like other disabled people I have no such issues. To me, the two men in question are simply world class athletes who deserve respect.