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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    The Crowd Says (25)

    • July 9th 2012 @ 5:40am
      Nick said | July 9th 2012 @ 5:40am | ! Report

      The fact that he failed to qualify on his own and is only going as a member of the relay team suggests he doesn’t gain an advantage. He’s slower than average runners.

      The rest of your argument is petty, essentially trivial and more than a little hysterical. For all the weight of your argument against his inclusion a resounding “so what” is enough to rebut.

      • July 9th 2012 @ 7:58am
        Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 7:58am | ! Report

        Nick – your comment reveals that you’re still missing the point. Pistorios doesn’t get an advantage from his blades because he only made the relay team? So Olympic-level relay runners are “slower than average runners”? Please. The point – to repeat it – is that Pistorios would not be a runner of any kind, even a “slower than average runner,” without the blades, so to claim he doesn’t get an “advantage” from them is simply absurd.

        As for the rest of my argument being “petty,” “essentially trivial,” and “hysterical,” well, I suppose you’re trying to say that none of this matters very much. Which seems a reasonable claim at first glance. Who cares if this one guy, who’s dedicated his whole life to running, is allowed to run? He probably won’t win anyway, and to stop him from running would just be an act of meanness.

        But it does matter, if not much in itself, then more for the precedent it would set. If people born without legs are allowed to compete with artificial legs, why should people born slow not be allowed to take drugs to make them faster?

        What I’m really trying to suggest is that we can’t have our cake and eat it too on this issue: either we accept that no non-arbitrary distinction between the natural and the artificial can be drawn (and I’d be interested to read a piece arguing this position), in which case people should be allowed to use drugs and all sorts of other aides, or we insist on the distinction, and so continue to outlaw such aides.

        • July 9th 2012 @ 10:51am
          nick said | July 9th 2012 @ 10:51am | ! Report

          No i get that point completely. My issue is ‘who cares’.

          Its incorrect to suggest he gets an advantage due to the blades, an advantage must mean, by definition, a leg up (no pun intended) over his rivals. Not just an advantage to himself.

          Thats the pint YOU don’t understand. Hence the rest of the article is meaningless

    • July 9th 2012 @ 8:04am
      mushi said | July 9th 2012 @ 8:04am | ! Report

      This article is pious as in a hypocritical concern with virtue.

      • July 9th 2012 @ 9:13am
        Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 9:13am | ! Report

        I confess mushi – you’re onto me. I’m a “hypocrite” – that is, I secretly don’t believe what I say here and really practice something else. Maybe I even run on carbon-fiber blades myself?

        Mind you, you are onto something with the hypocrisy line: it is inconsistent (rather than hypocrisy, which implies knowingly pretending something is true when you know it isn’t) to be both against drugs in sport AND for Pistorios running in the Olympics (as, say, someone like Peter Fitzsimons is).

        • July 9th 2012 @ 10:33am
          mushi said | July 9th 2012 @ 10:33am | ! Report

          I do say dear fellow shall it be dictionary definitions at 27 paces then! Shall you clumsily define every word, along with origin and common misuse, as you annunciate your attack!

          A hypocritical concern for virtue.

          And only said due to the decision to explain to your audience the meaning of the words you were using (which if that is the case – why use them?).

          It has stuff all to do with you running on carbon fibre limbs. Which in and of itself isn’t hypocitcal unless you’re looking for Olympic selection, hell it would even add credibility.

          The hypocrisy I referred to was that you are dressing up your argument as a vitreous one when in really you are discarding virtuous sentiments and making a more hardline argument and asking us is there really a difference between disabled athletes and performance enhancing drug users.

          Though one could extend that to training and diet right?

          • July 9th 2012 @ 1:26pm
            Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

            Once again mushi, you’re spot on. I really think disabled athletes are the same as drug users. And I just dressed up my argument as a “vitreous” one (you need the spell-check then, rather than the dictionary).

            And the reason to explain to an audience the meaning of a key word you are using is obvious: words mean different things to different people, so, if you want to be understood on a controversial issue, you may have to explain yourself (and even then some people will not be able to, or refuse to, understand you).

            You finally raise a real issue with your question about training and diet though. In the first modern Olympics, training was indeed frowned upon as somehow “unsportsmanlike.” Now, that view seems silly, but it’s unclear why the current view – which includes both a rigid anti-drug regime and allowance for all sorts of other artificial aides, more effective in some cases even than drugs – is more coherent. As I’ve said, the Pistorius case is an extreme case, which is why it’s interesting, as extreme cases force us to think through our positions.

            • July 9th 2012 @ 1:35pm
              Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

              P.S I find it admirable that someone who uses the old-fashioned word “virtue” as freely as you do is able to say “dear fellow” with irony.

    • Columnist

      July 9th 2012 @ 9:14am
      Geoff Lemon said | July 9th 2012 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      What a peculiar line of argument. I suppose anyone who has had any metal reinforcement of a broken bone is not a “real” athlete either.

      • July 9th 2012 @ 9:27am
        Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 9:27am | ! Report

        First, Geoff, I never suggested Pistorius was not a “real athlete.” I acknowledged he is an athlete, of a kind (when dealing with difficult and emotive questions like this one, it pays to pay close attention to what other people, who may have different views from you, are really saying).

        You do raise a good point though. As I said in the piece, the question of what constitutes “unfair” artificial aid is raised by many things in many sports: by advanced training techniques, as well as by surgeries, equipment, etc.

        My claim was not that Pistorius shouldn’t be allowed to run just because he uses artificial aid. Rather I was suggesting his aid not only crosses but obliterates a line that is not always easy to draw, and may be impossible ever to draw with perfect clarity (such lines exist in all areas of human life – see the law!).

        Now, one can argue that there is no line, or shouldn’t be, between nature and artifice in sport, but then, it seems to me, one would have to accept the radical consequences that would follow from this, including the consequence that all anti-doping regimes etc are fundamentally arbitrary and invalid. Is this your position?

      • July 10th 2012 @ 12:36am
        Jack Russell said | July 10th 2012 @ 12:36am | ! Report

        Hardly the same. Everyone is able to have metal rods inserted into their bones. The same rules apply for all.

        Not everyone can use carbon fibre blades – in fact if any other athlete on the track at the Oympics used them they wouldn’t be let on and branded a cheat.

        The author is right – he gains an unfair advantage. In the same way if I compensated for my lack of running ability by competing in the marathon on roller blades, and then denying other competitors the same opportunity because they have more ability.

        Not that any of this should detract from being able to admire the man as an athlete.

    • July 9th 2012 @ 9:21am
      Fivehole said | July 9th 2012 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      I’m waiting for a wheelchair athlete to try and compete in the marathon – where they have a distinct advantage. That will make for an interesting case!

      • July 9th 2012 @ 9:48am
        Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 9:48am | ! Report

        Here’s another perspective on the case, a bit more sympathetic to Pistorius’ ambitions than mine:


        The author does note, however, that all this would really become a problem if Pistorius WON, and the certainty that he won’t is what has really allowed his inclusion (as Fivehole suggests, “disabled” athletes competing in events where they may win would be “interesting”).

        • July 10th 2012 @ 1:48am
          AndyMack said | July 10th 2012 @ 1:48am | ! Report

          So its ok for disabled people to have a crack, show some ticker, get out there and amongst it (and all the other condescending comments thrown around at Paralympic time) but just dont you dare beat the non-disabled people!!!!

    • July 9th 2012 @ 10:57am
      nick said | July 9th 2012 @ 10:57am | ! Report

      Lets not let people who need glasses compete with them either eh?

      Or allow anyone who has screws in bones (Richie McCaw RWC) to compete?

      The difference is, in these cases and Pistorius’, they gain no advantage over their opposition by having these things. They only gain a relative parity and ability to compete.

      Obviously when someone (Like armstrong) dopes and we allow it or, in the future, an athlete cuts his own legs off to add bionic pins to run at 70mph this issue will be a talking point.

      When that time comes there’ll be no argument that there will need to be a separate competition or banning of these things altogether.

      • July 9th 2012 @ 12:01pm
        Sexton1 said | July 9th 2012 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

        Nick – like many people, including Geoff above, you argue by reducing the point to an obvious absurdity. I claim the artificial legs give Pistorius an unreasonable advantage, therefore I must be against all operations, people wearing glasses etc.

        But to use your own words: many artificial aides give people “a relative parity and ability to compete.” And you are right that there is nothing unusual about this. But what if, say someone is born, not without fibulas, but slow. Does this mean they can take steroids, or put springs in their shoes, to give them “a relative parity and ability to compete” with Usain Bolt? Because certainly, without some artificial aide, they will lack both.

        I don’t claim the issue is easy, that there should be some blanket restriction on all artificial aides. Rather I’m suggesting that the Pistorius case is an extreme one that raises hard questions about how we should think about the whole nature/art issue in sport.

        Moreover, I don’t think this issue is, what you seem to be claiming it is, a trivial issue requiring no thought and where the right response is to say “so what” (though if you really believed that, why are you bothering to argue at all?).

        P.S “Advantage,” as you’ll find if you look in the dictionary, has a number of meanings, only one of which is the one you assume (a relative advantage OVER others). Clearly, Pistorius’ blades give an advantage TO HIM over what he would otherwise possess. The whole question then hinges on whether this amounts to an unreasonable advantage in general. I think it does. You think it doesn’t. That’s the disagreement; and there’s no shortcut round it by just spouting words like “petty,” “trivial,” and “meaningless” – you’d be better off arguing your case with courtesy.

      • July 10th 2012 @ 12:38am
        Jack Russell said | July 10th 2012 @ 12:38am | ! Report

        Once again – everyone can wear glasses. Not everyone can wear carbon fibre blades. Only Pistorius is allowed to wear them.

        Massive, massive difference.

        • July 10th 2012 @ 1:51am
          AndyMack said | July 10th 2012 @ 1:51am | ! Report

          Why a massive differece jack??

          if i am born with poor sight, but can attach glasses to my face to enable me to compete in archery with “normal sighted people”, how is that any difference to someone born without legs attaching some carbon fibre limbs???

          Surely those glasses are giving me an unnatural advantage.

          • July 10th 2012 @ 3:29pm
            Jack Russell said | July 10th 2012 @ 3:29pm | ! Report

            Because everyone, irrespective of their seeing ability, can wear glasses if they choose to.

            Only one athlete can wear blades. It remains illegal for everyone else.

            • July 11th 2012 @ 2:15am
              AndyMack said | July 11th 2012 @ 2:15am | ! Report

              Cos lots of people with perfect vision still choose to wear glasses….

              • July 11th 2012 @ 12:20pm
                Jack Russell said | July 11th 2012 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

                Which says what about their performance enhancing ability?

                But I can tell you right now that if every athlete could use carbon blades they would.

    • July 9th 2012 @ 1:47pm
      matt h said | July 9th 2012 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

      This is a difficult and uncomfortable discussion. Whenever an arbitrary line has to be drawn, there are always issues on just either side of the line.

      Take drugs in sport – is an asthmatic athlete who takes Ventolin gaining an unfair advantage? Where is the line?
      Does taking electrolytes to prevent cramping rather than just water an unfair advantage?
      So back to the asthmatic athlete. If he has an operation to clear his nasal passages is that an unfair advantage in this author’s eyes? Where is the line?
      If an archery competitor uses some sort of super contact lense which magnifices his target? Is that wrong if he has 20/20 vision, but ok if he was originally vision-impaired?
      Some athletes have better footewear than others. Should they all run barefoot?

      Take the super suits in swimming. They are banned now, but what if the use of a suit, instead of being widespread, had been used by a disabled athlete and it gave them just enough extra speed to make a full olympic team. Should that be allowed?

      I confess I do not have any easy answers here. It is a bit of human nature to say “it’s ok as long as he doesn’t win”. Imagine if it was high jump and the artificial legs were springs. What then? the real difficulty is that there is no way of saying how good this guy would have been with natural legs – obviously because he never had any – so one cannot say with certainty whether the artifical legs convey an advantage over an identically talented able-bodied athlete.

      Frankly, it’s bloody hard. So I’m going to go with case-by-case and if it is a 50/50 call, what would the compassionate thing be to do? Let the boy run I think.

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