The Oscar Pistorius Effect

By Blair

Has there ever been a more famous disabled athlete then Oscar Pistorius? What is the effect of that on the Paralympic movement and perceptions of disability sport? Look up any list or writing on famous disabled athletes and four names appear regularly:

  • Jim Abbott  — Major League baseball player who pitched for a number of teams and spent most of his career with the California Angels and New York Yankees winning a career total 87 games and pitching a no-hitter in 1993 (arm amputee)
  • Marla Runyan  — Middle/long distance runner who was a world and Olympic finalist at 1500m/5000m and Paralympic medalist (5 gold/1 silver) in Barcelona and Atlanta (visually impaired)
  • Natalie Du Toit  — Swimmer who has been dominant in her classification at the Paralympic Games in Athens and Beijing (10 gold/1 silver) and competed in Open Water Swimming at the Beijing Olympics after placing 4th in the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships (above the knee leg amputee)
  • Tanni Grey-Thompson —Paralympic track and field athlete who won 11 gold, 4 silver and 1 bronze medal competing in five Paralympic Games from Seoul, 1988 to Athens, 2004 (wheelchair athlete)

    Image of Pistorius racing - coming around the bend in the track.

    Photo Elvar Freyr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/erlendurkafari/964337292/)

Oscar Pistorius is starting to show-up on these lists and certainly will by the end of 2012. All these athletes, except Tanni Grey-Thompson, have one thing in common – they have been successful competing in non-disabled sport at an Olympic or professional level. So, Oscar isn’t the first to do it, but his case is unique in its own right.

Oscar first appeared on the world sports scene at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games where he shattered the T43 world record while winning the T44 200m and finished third in the 100m. The following spring he gained greater attention in the mainstream media as the face of Paralympic World Cup, an annual multi-sport event held in Manchester, UK. His rise and athletic progress since then has been steady. Oscar has along the way garnered significant media attention and sponsorship especially in South Africa and Europe. I lived in London (UK) from 2004 to 2008 so I was able to witness his rising profile. Oscar has a much bigger prominence there because of the higher level of popularity of athletics (track & field) and the comprehensive television coverage of the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic World Cup by the BBC. He is sponsored by BT, the largest telecom provider in the UK along with Nike, Oakley and other companies. His popularity is not limited to Europe though, as he is world renowned as “The Blade Runner”.

Pistorius speaking holds up his prothestic running leg to the audience at the Global Sports Forum

Photo courtesy Global Sports Forum

Oscar has had his sights set on competing in international non-disabled sport from the beginning of his career. That dream hit a bump in 2007 when the IAAF introduced an amendment to Rule 144-2(e), “The Oscar Pistorius Rule”, specifying that athletes must compete without the use of technical aids. After a study done using video footage from the 2007 World Athletics Championships and physical testing, the IAAF ruled that Oscar has an advantage over his non-disabled counterparts that comes from the consistency of energy returned from his prosthetics and the aerobic benefit from not having the lower parts of his legs requiring oxygen. Oscar and his team had a separate study conducted at the University of Houston and successfully appealed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The CAS agreed with the evidence presented by his team from the second study suggesting that he had “no net advantage” over his non-disabled compatriots. This opened the door for his participation in future World Athletics Championships and Olympic Games.

Oscar took a giant step towards that goal by qualifying for the 2011 World Athletics Championships in the individual 400m where he made it to the semi-finals before bowing out, and won a silver medal as a member of the South African 4 x 400m relay team though he didn’t run in the final. During the season, Oscar won a meet in Italy and, in so doing, ran 45.07 seconds — under the ‘A’ standard for the London 2012 Olympic Games. He will need to reproduce that performance in the spring of 2012 to qualify for the Olympics. He is positioned to be one of the feature personalities leading up to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

There is no doubt that Oscar’s performances have been remarkable and along with Ossur’s prosthetic technology he has moved the level of double lower leg amputee sprinting into a new era. He is one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet and surely the most covered Paralympic athlete in the short history of the movement. However, Oscar’s success is a double-edged sword for the Paralympic movement.

The positive side is that the Paralympics has its first global superstar. A great story full of athletic accomplishment and one that all spectators to marvel at, even those previously uninitiated to Paralympic sport. Watching Paralympic sport usually takes a while for people to understand the different classification systems and abilities present. Questions quickly arise like “How come there are four different wheelchair 400m races? Why is that person running with a guide and that person isn’t? Those guys look “normal”, how can they be in the Paralympics?” Tuning into watch Oscar is easy for the casual spectator. He performs the sport in the same way a non-disabled athlete would and his impairment category and class are clearly visible. Plus Oscar delivers excitement when he races. Because of his impairment, he starts slow and finishes blistering fast regardless the distance, which means he is usually coming from behind and he regularly breaks Paralympic world records. These two things combined with the sheer curiosity of wanting to see just how fast this guy can run “on no legs”, as the British press used to hype it, make Oscar a top viewing product. Oscar has done well with the endorsement deals in large part because of his uniqueness, but he is also very marketable (GQ South Africa recently picked him as the best dressed man of 2011) and available to the media. The double opportunity to feature him in Olympic and Paralympic promotions along with his worldwide recognisability make him an attractive focus for sponsors and Olympic organisers leading up to London. When Oscar runs, in London, the world will most certainly be watching.

After the world watches, what will be the lasting impression? Will viewers hang on to watch other events and classes? Possibly. Are they likely to become avid fans of Paralympic sport? Highly doubtful. In other words, the IPC risks this becoming a one person show, well maybe a two person show, as his country mate Natalie Du Toit is also an Olympic/Paralympic crossover athlete likely to draw attention. In other words, all that attention is concentrated not on the diversity of abilities and performance in the Paralympics, but on the outstanding exploits of one or two anomalies. To their credit, both Oscar and Natalie have continued to be active supporters of disability and Paralympic sport despite the ability to crossover to what some might consider greener pastures. Despite these efforts, their performances I think inadvertently diminish the achievements of other Paralympians in the eyes of the general public.

Pistorius races in a field of 7 athletes at the 2008 Paralympics.

Pistorius racing at the 2008 Paralympics. Photo credit Jonas under CC license.

Elite sport is very much centred around ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Faster, Higher, Stronger) and as such Oscar, Natalie and the select few crossover athletes like them represent the pinnacle of performance in disability sport. For the casual observer, athletes in other classes are slower, lower and weaker, so the interest wanes. However, there may be a number of athletes performing at just as high a level or even higher given their impairment, but crossover to Olympic sport isn’t possible. Many casual observers might be led to think or ask “If this guy with two legs amputated can run in the Olympics, why can’t other Paralympic athletes do it?” Obviously, the answer is all impairments are different and what other Paralympic athletes do is just as impressive, but this is a subtle distinction for the casual observer. As a result any effort by the IPC to promote these athletes will either fall under the banner of ‘Inspire’ or be totally ignored. The challenge for the IPC is to develop a way to redefine sport performance that makes it about achievement, but not always the fastest, highest and strongest of them all. In other words, how can the Paralympics be more a celebration of diversity of excellent performance?

Oscar Pistorius has not only faced resistance in becoming part of the international, non-disabled sport community, but he faced resistance within the Paralympic movement as well. Paralympic athletic classification rules allow athletes to compete up a class against athletes that are “less impaired”. Oscar is a class T43 (double leg below the knee amputee), but in Paralympic competition he runs in the T44 class against single leg below the knee amputees. The reason that he runs up a class is because there are so few T43 athletes in the world that he would not have a competitive opportunity if he didn’t run with the T44s. However, when Oscar appeared on the scene, the T44 athletes lodged a protest against his running in their class. The reasoning behind that protest was that the impairment Oscar has is symmetrical — the movement on both sides of the body is the same. For single leg amputees, the rhythm is much different on the prosthetic leg from the non-prosthetic leg. They felt this led to a smoother running motion and this, along with similar arguments about the advantages gained from the prosthetics on both legs, gave him a significant advantage over the single leg amputees. I believe this resistance within the Paralympic sport community gets to the deeper issues that Oscar’s performance raises.

Oscar Pistorius has brought about the debate over what constitutes advantage and it is counter intuitive to long held assumptions about disability and athletic performance. Having followed Oscar’s case closely and read both studies, I actually agree with the original IAAF ruling that he has an advantage over his non-disabled counterparts. However, I would specify that I think this advantage has a very limited range that starts at 400m and might at best stretch to 800m. I believe this advantage is why Oscar has focused on the 400m event in international competition. Currently this advantage enables Oscar, as an individual to compete with the best in the world. What would happen if he, or another double amputee, were to challenge the world record? I think this would lead to a re-examining of the issue of advantage. It is hard for most people to get their mind around the idea that an athlete who was born without both lower legs could have an advantage over a single leg amputee, let alone an ‘able-bodied’ athlete. I don’t think is that uncommon, but Oscar’s situation is unique in revealing it.

Disability leads to many adaptations in particular skills that enable the disabled person to compensate for missing function in other areas. It is rare that these adaptations are open for comparison or recognised in the sporting arena as they are with Oscar. For example, wheelchairs are adaptive technologies for locomotion, yet no one would suggest that a runner race against a wheelchair athlete though the core of what they’re doing is the same. A wheelchair athlete would be competitive over 400m and would crush a runner at any distance over 400m — it wouldn’t be fair. Impairment isn’t necessarily a horrible fate as often assumed in society. There can be distinct advantages to the differences it brings, but this is counterintuitive if one believes the impairment is what does the disabling, rather than the structures and attitudes of society. Oscar’s outstanding performance challenges us to examine these assumptions. Simply put, Oscar is running the event that best suits his body type and skill set.

A book released recently predicts that a time will come when watching the performances of able-bodied athletes will be boring because the performances of disabled athletes or athletes using enhancing technology will be so much more exciting, faster, higher and stronger. I’m not so convinced this is the case, but it will be interesting to see if these types of issues arise more often and whether they challenge broader ideas and attitudes toward disability.

Regardless of these issues, I’ll be watching London and cheering for Oscar, Natalie and all the other Paralympians and Olympians as they push the limits of human performance in all its diversity. Will you be watching and what effect do you think it will have?

2 thoughts on “The Oscar Pistorius Effect

  1. A well presented blog that discusses a very important ethical issue! We think that, while Pistorius’ successes should be genuinely celebrated, his attempt to compete in the Olympics will open up a much larger discussion of categories within the Olympics, as well as the Paralympics.

    As you, and our review of the research, suggest(s), while the prosthetics provide a large mechanical advantage, Pistorius is faced with adopting to a new running style, which includes teaching muscles to contract in uncommon ways. Some might consider Oscar’s style of running “bounding.”

    From our point of view, Pistorius’ success and overwhelming desire to be pushed in competition is a positive for both the Olympics and the Paralympics. He is an engaging athlete–he challenges established categories, he is experimenting with new technologies, and he appears as a charismatic personality. And isn’t that what competition is really about? Laying all your cards on the table against someone else, and seeing who comes out on top? Albeit, there is the notion of keeping things fair, and we recognize that newly emerging technologies that make athletes faster, stronger, and better, are opening up many new challenges to those enforcing a “level playing field.” But sometimes, the popularity of uncommon arenas emerges because of one, or a few, engaging people, and Pistorius may be exactly what international competition, both the Olympics and the Paralympics, needs now.

    Thanks for the interesting blog!

  2. I find this blog post utterly fascinating. It’s interesting to me that in the interest of “keeping things fair” there seems to be a real regimented set of rules in terms of who fits into certain categories and who doesn’t. Birth defects, injury and illness don’t always allow for a person’s abilities to be clearly defined. Paralympic athletes should be able to compete at a level that offers them a true challenge, otherwise, what’s the point? By challenging themselves, they have the opportunity to grow and reach their full potential and who doesn’t want that?

    I will be watching as much of the 2012 games as humanly possible-in my house, everything stops when the Games are on. I am really hoping that London sees fit to liberally televise its Paralympic games. Watching them here at home in 2010 was fantastic-I’d always wondered what went on at the Paralympics and I found the competition of Paralympic athletes as exciting and compelling as the Olympians’. I’ll be hugely disappointed if London fails to give the Paralympics decent air time.

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