Sunday, July 15, 2007

Oscar Pistorius v. I.A.A.F: excluded for "purity" & "fairness"

The IAAF have introduced a rule to stop one man, Oscar Pistorius, from running the 400 meters on the basis that he has an unfair advantage over his competitors; he has no legs. Indeed one of the arguments against Oscar is that while other athletes have lactic acid build up in their legs, he doesn’t, because he doesn’t have any: unfair advantage. Strictly speaking he has no lower legs as they were both amputated below the knee at 11 months of age. What makes the IAAF rule such a open example of “not one of us” decision make by fear are the striking parallels it holds with the arguments which used to be made about black athletes, female athletes and those still made about transitioned athletes.

Oscar Pistorius runs on carbon fiber composite legs called Cheetah’s Flex-Foot by Ossur. Indeed every serious amputee athlete seems to use Flex-Foot including Aimee Mullins, who is shown wearing them in photos for the recent Sports Illustrated article naming her “supercrip.” The I.A.A.F. contend Flex-Foot prosthetics give Oscar the advantage. Indeed? Note that Aimee’s best 200 meters is 34.60 seconds while Florence Griffith-Joyner holds the world record of 21.34 seconds. Oscar began running four years ago and set world records in the 100, 200 and 400 Paralympic events. Three years ago he started running against able bodied athletes in his native South Africa. When Oscar started running against able bodied athletes no one had a problem, at least until March 2007 when he finished second for the 400 meters in the South Africa Championships. Suddenly Oscar’s comments about going to the Olympics, no not the Paralympics, the able bodied Olympics didn’t seem so farfetched. Not only does he want to go as a 400 meter runner but he might have already qualified to join the South African 4x400 Olympic team for 2008. Oscar’s fastest time is 46.56, Michael Johnson’s Olympic record is 43.18. When Oscar showed up on the podium the IAAF (and others) started saying that he must have some unfair advantage. Those years Oscar spent in training when he went to running meets and lost to able bodied athletes didn’t bother the IAAF at all. However less that two months after reaching second place in South Africa his use of prostethic legs was banned by the I.A.A.F.(for “fairness”).

Here are some of the complaints against Pistorius: The IAAF made the ruling because they “heard” that his strides were three to four meters or more due to the prosthetic legs (they are now recording his running to see if this is true), Leon Fleiser of the South African Olympic Committee says that the rule book states the foot must be in contact with the starting block and wonders if a prosthetic can be counted as “a foot.” Then there is the argument that if Pistorius is allowed and manages to win, athletes will start to chop off their legs in order to get better times. The I.A.A.F. also claims they may decide he is a danger to other athletes since he is unstable at start and could topple over injuring others. They suggest and worry if Pistorius is allowed it will “open the door” to any other assistive technologies or as the Director of Development for the I.A.A.F. put it; “Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”

If Oscar Pistorius runs, concludes the director of development of the I.A.A.F. ““It affects the purity of sport.” The I.A.A.F. and others want him “back where he belongs, in the Paralympics.” This seems to be the essential argument and it is also the most familiar. While the rhetoric of society is that disabled people are equal, there is an obvious fear of even the possibility of a man with prosthetic legs lining up with able bodied men and winning. “bottom line is it is apples and oranges. The man is truly inspirational and my hat is off to him. I would love to see him compete against "normal" people but not in a competition of equals.” This fear of “loss of purity” seems the very same as the one which kept Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion from being able to challenge for the title: “Blacks could box whites in other arenas, but the heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position in America that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it.” Similar decisions kept blacks out of baseball until 1947. In the same way, women were excluded from running races longer than 200 meters in the Olympics until 1960. Debates on women with Marfan’s (a genetic disorder which tends to make tall women with risk of heart problems) were raised when the question of transitioned transsexual athletes was addressed. Woman with Marfan’s have a genetic advantage in some sports due to their height, should they be excluded? It was determined no, but ironically, in 2004 a new cardiovascular screening has been introduced to find and disqualify those with cardiac risk, citing Marfan’s specifically (which would now include Flo Hyman – a Hall of Fame Athlete).

But the argument of not including the “other” makes the strongest parallel with transitioned athletes who according to 2002 Olympic IOC rulings based on scientific panels have a protocol for accepting transitioned athletes. However, that tends to go out the window when the transitioned athlete starts to win. Michelle Dumaresq found that out when she took up the sport of downhill mountain bike racing in 2001 at the suggestion of female independent film makers. She entered, she won. Two wins later, Cycling BC suspended her license. After trying to get her to quit, she was given a professional license but protests against her continued. After her 2006 national win, the second place finisher, Danika Schroeter, wore a shirt reading '100% Pure Woman Champ.' (Danika was suspended, but the suspension was moved to off season when it would have no impact). Another transitioned athlete, Mianne Bagger, also faced complaints and suspicion of “unfair advantage” when she started as a pro golfer. Her appearance caused the LPGA to modify their rules to exclude her. With only one event to attend as a pro, the Australian open, eventually the Ladies European Tour allowed her to play as a professional. The complaints of “excessive testosterone strength” and other issues vanished when Mianne disappeared into the back of the LET circuit rankings. Though even now she has to put on the top of her home page her LET distance hitting ranking (163rd) which obviously is the “perceived advantage” opponents to her playing thought decisive. Like the numbers of Oscar and other amputees, there are tens to hundreds of thousands of transitioned individuals in the western world; but it only takes one or two examples of winning to bring up comments of "advantage."

Like transitioned athletes the question around Oscar remains, is he “one of us?” (A question that must immediately arise anyone uses the word “purity” as a reason for exclusion). No one really cared if plucky Oscar flailed around on the track showing his positive spirit and losing heroically. This after all is the role of disabled people in the West. But the realization that a) he is really trying his hardest to win and b) that he is starting to win has created some strong opposition. Dr. Ross Tucker from the University of Cape Town seems to have made it a life mission to have Oscar Pistorius excluded. He demands that the onus is on Oscar to “prove” he has no advantage. Dr. Tucker believes he has an advantage including decreasing his time by lengthening his stride but then hedges his bet to say “Just because his stride may be the same length, does not mean he does not have an advantage.” Errr…okay. Though Dr. Tucker lays out what he calls “the first and ONLY evaluation of all the evidence” concluding that Oscar has an advantage, two weeks before Dr. Tucker had his opinion grounded in “My gut feeling, based on a few observations and physiological principles, is that the limbs do give an advantage..” A “gut feeling” later followed by argument as “evidence” to convince others you are right does not make science; it does however make a very good “creationist theme park” in the US.

Besides the obvious head scratcher of how a piece of bendy carbon is better than the complex bioengineering that is the human leg; Oscar argues that a) the same type of prosthetics have been around for 14 years and b) where then are the other “advantaged” athletes. It hardly seems logical that the I.A.A.F. or others want to exclude Oscar from running because athletes will amputate their legs to get carbon Flex-Foot when by de facto logic, there are already many athlete with leg amputations who, according to the critics, should become superior runners to their able bodied competitors by simply buying Ossur Flex-Foot Cheetah’s. So where are they?

The decisions to try and stuff Oscar back into Paralympics where ‘he belongs’ is the act of cowardice. If there was a problem with the prosthetic, why not talk to the makers and put restrictions on the prosthetic instead of the athlete? Why pass a rule which will make it impossible for Oscar to qualify for the Olympics? Oscar is inspirational as an athlete NOT because he had his legs amputated but because as an athlete he is training and pushing to reach and race the highest mark he can. Because he is visibly different, this has become a political as well as an athletic conversation with decisions being made as much to stop anyone from imitating Oscar as from stopping Oscar from running in I.A.A.F. races. Winning is good but participating is better. The I.A.A.F. and others, in their fear have lost sight of the purpose of amateur sport which is the benefit of individuals and the community in participating in community sport. The I.A.A.F. in their zeal to make sure Oscar and other visably different althetes like him can’t win are stopping them from even participating. When the Paralympics is not longer an option for athletes but the place they “belong” and the only place they will be allowed to compete then the Paralympics is just a constructed ghetto no different than the old Negro Leagues of Baseball. And the I.A.A.F. or the South African Olympic committee, in their insistence of feet to touch the starting blocks, reveal a bigotry demeaning to the sport itself.


KateJ said...

I so totally agree with you about the attitude of the sport hierarchy towards disabled athletes, who have already had to overcome overwhelming odds just to get the chance to do athletics at all, to find a sport that will accept them, get to training facilities, find coaches, get sponsorship... the list is endless.
Tanni Grey-Thompson who has won more medals than just about any other British person is now, finally, accepted as a truly great athlete not just a 'plucky' wheelchair racer. But when she was in BBC Sports Personality Awards a few years back they were so unused to disabled athletes that they 'forgot' to get a podium with wheelchair access for her to accept her award.
I hope the Olympics are overwhelmed by 'disabled' people - there'll probably will be US Iraq veterans coming though by the next Olympics - good luck to them.

kathz said...

The passion sports bodies have for definition and exclusion is remarkable. Much was made of the decision to exempt Princess Anne from tests for "gender verification" when she competed in the 1976 Olympics. She was the only female competitor ever exempted and all other women in her sport were tested. This is even more evidently absurd since her sport - Eventing - is one of the few in which men and women can be members of the same team and compete on equal terms.

With this passion for differentiation and discrimination, I wonder how long it will be before the famous "Man versus Horse Marathon" insists on testing all competitors to check they belong to the correct species.

Meanwhile I heard an IAAF spokesman on the radio telling Oscar Pistorius (not directly but through the radio audience) to "calm down a bit". I have a feeling they wouldn't say that to an able-bodied athlete whose right to compete in the Olympics was at stake. Meanwhile Tanni Grey-Thompson does, I think, point towards an important debate about the effect on other athletes with diabilities - and this will, I think, be worth following.

The Goldfish said...

I blogged about this and linked to this post at the BBC Ouch! Blog today. :-)

Kay Olson said...

Hey, Elizabeth, you've been tagged!

Sara said...

This is very, very interesting, Elizabeth. Thank you for writing it.

I, of course, am as I have always been, just about as athletic as a sofa cushion, and perhaps twice as wealthy. Thus it is unlikely that I will ever be driven to find the resources to try out a Cheetah leg myself. However, my limited experience running in my not-really-designed-for-it transfemoral suction socket tells me that even the Cheetah properly fit is probably neither as fun nor as efficient as running on an organic leg, no, not even with that big, bouncy spring foot. The spring makes competitive running possible by bouncing the user upward, you know, instead of toes and ankles and arches that can be minutely controlled. However, on organic legs, it is possible to run without much up-and-down motion at all. All the most efficient animals seem to do this, cheetahs for example, as well as the most successful human foot racers I've seen. However, every prosthetic-using runner I've ever seen has a great deal of his/her springing energy spent going up and down, not forward. It is much, much harder to finesse the direction of one's spring on actual springs than it is on working feet and, where applicable, knees.

If an amputated runner is consistently beating runners with "normal" legs and feet, well, all I can say is that the amputee in question is a very great athlete and I want to watch.

For anyone who doesn't believe that amputation and prosthesis offers no advantage to a runner, I can only recommend they try it, that they experience for themselves the pleasure not just of blisters and chafing like any athlete experiences, but also the distinctive sensation of one's unattached bone pieces pistoning up and down inside one's own flesh as one launches and lands, launches and lands, spring or no spring. It's really not like anything else, and sure to prove most enlightening.

Of course, anyone who would actually have his feet amputated just in order to run on prosthetics would be crazy, and any doctor who would perform such a surgery would exhibit seriously compromised ethics of the sort that threatens people's licenses.

For all we know, Pistorius would have been a brilliant runner with a naturally long stride if his legs hadn't been amputated when he was an infant, and honestly, that's what I believe. Sadly, there's just no tape on this, so I am left to wonder instead how many passionate runners who, through the slings and arrows, etc., have first run on a set of perfectly healthy organic legs but then found themselves running on the same kind of equipment as Pistorius have ever even tried to compete with "normals" and win. I would be terribly sad to discover that they had always just assumed they couldn't or shouldn't.

Kara said...

You parallel of the Paralypics to a constructed ghetto through the decision of the IAAF (and in my opinion from the messages expressed by the media regarding this story) really got me thinking...I blogged on the topic today over at Disaboom.

I hope you'll check it out.