Oscar Pistorius’ Olympics berth doesn’t equal equality

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While one of the most famous athletes ever, Lance Armstrong, is pursued with the doggedness of an inquisition for possibly using performance-enhancing drugs, another athlete, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, will run on carbon-fibre blades at the upcoming Olympics.

What curious times we live in.

This, too, at what we are told will be the cleanest Olympics ever, with the strictest regime against all ‘unfair’ artificial aides.

Pistorius runs on the blades in place of his missing lower legs. According to Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the fact that Pistorius will run is a triumph for “equal rights,” and there is “no evidence that the running prostheses allow him to run at a faster pace than is biologically achievable.”

Really? There is “no evidence” that someone who has no lower legs will be able to run faster than they would otherwise if they are allowed to run with artificial legs? That’s like saying there’s no evidence than an armless man, if given super-strong prosthetic arms, would be a better arm-wrestler.

In truth, there’s no need to demonstrate that that the Cheetahs give Pistorius an advantage not “biologically achievable.” It’s obvious. All the complicated tests conducted on Pistorius and his blades in the last few years, with the aim of determining whether they allow him to pump his legs faster than athletes who run on their own legs, have been a waste of time.

The fundamental fact is that he couldn’t run at all without the blades.

Given that this fact is obvious, though, why do many people want to deny it?

Partly, it’s just basic human good nature and hopefulness. Pistorius was born without fibulas and had his lower legs amputated when he was not yet a year old. His is a sad story. But we don’t want his story to be sad; we want it to be ‘inspiring.’ And so, in a sense, it is: Pistorius, not content with the lot nature has given him, has made himself into an athlete of a kind.

But we have an Olympics for athletes of Pistorius’ kind. It’s called the Paralympics. And Pistorius will compete in the Paralympics too, raising the question of what they’re for if “disabled” athletes can also compete, with artificial help, in the Olympics.

Of course, as champions of Pistorius might point out, it’s not just him who’ll be competing in London with artificial or extra-human help. Many events, sailing and horse riding for example, hinge as much on the equipment as the athlete is. But the fact that that many events now included in the Olympics, as well as advanced training techniques, raise uncomfortable questions about what is natural and what is artificial can’t justify the obliteration of the distinction.

The desire to obliterate that distinction, as well as human good nature and hopefulness (indeed, the one is the outgrowth of the other), is what really lies behind the campaign for Pistorius, and many other modern campaigns for ‘equality’. We want things to be better than they are, we want to be better than we are ourselves, and, sometimes, we succeed in making, through our own efforts, things and ourselves better.

But there are also fundamental facts of human nature, and of nature as such, that we cannot change, no matter how hard we try or how badly we want to change them.

One such fact is that a man born without fibulas will never be a runner, in the genuine sense of the word. Another is that human beings are unequal in everything except the most important thing – their humanity – and so attempts to impose ‘equality’ through artificial means in every sphere of life, including what is palpably the least equal – sport – are either bound to fail, or involve a violent distortion of human nature.

The campaign for Pistorius is, like many contemporary campaigns to impose equality through artificial means, not only a case of late-modern piety (piety being the willingness to believe that something is true when it is obviously not), but a self-undermining campaign. The claim that a failure to acknowledge human equality is an act of injustice, is ultimately grounded in the idea of a human nature that is not subject to alteration by human will.

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