As I write this, I am watching what ended up being the end of Oscar Pistorius’ individual medal bid at this year’s Olympic Games. His presence on the track at this stage in the Games was long seen as impossible, and to many unearned. I’ve had a lot of feelings about his bid for a medal, and while I tried to express myself on Twitter, I simply needed more space, so here we go.
As a fan of the Paralympics as well as the regular Olympics, I feel the need now to make a slight clarification. I don’t do so to be demeaning or to seem like a know-it-all, but to make a point. The Paralympic Games is an international multisport competition designed to provide a field of sport for athletes with a physical disability. And while providing a separate field for these athletes, one of their goals is to “strive for equal treatment with non-disabled Olympic athletes”. I say this to disambiguate the Paralympics from the Special Olympics- a better-known enterprise designed for athletes with intellectual disabilities. It is typically understood that the Paralympics, held immediately following each Olympic Games, fields a higher level of competition than the Special Olympics, whose events are held year-round and have only been affiliated with the Games since the early 1970s.
I make this distinction to inform the case that Paralympians are world-class athletes. They are in many cases as talented and exceptional as the athletes who are more commonly glorified in the higher-profile “able bodied” Olympics. I’ve had the opportunity to learn the stories of a few Paralympians (most notably Mark Zupan and Matt Glowacki) and have grown to understand that their talents and accomplishments are every bit as impressive as the athletes who get the high profile endorsements and are talked about so often in the media. With that said, I do want to point out that BP and United Airlines have closed that gap this year, and I was so excited to see them glorify athletes from both sets of Games.
On to Oscar Pistorius, aka “Blade Runner” (AWESOME). Oscar Pistorius has ben competing in the Paralympics since 2004 (and will be doing so this year, after this Olympics), and has been shattering their records for as long as he’s been participating. He lobbied to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games, and was denied on the basis that he was “cheating”. As it happens, the assumption of cheating essentially came from him being deemed too good given his disability. After proving that no scientific advantage was given by his running blades, he was permitted to participate, and here he is. Pistorius put it best when he poses the question: if the blades gave him an advantage, why aren’t any of the thousands of other runners using similar blades shattering records in a similar fashion? To put it simply, HE is good- not his “legs”. And in giving him the opportunity to compete alongside able-bodied athletes, the Paralympics is starting to serve the purpose it was originally designed for.
To me, this makes me wonder what understanding the International Olympic Committee, and for that matter the rest of the world, has of the Paralympics. Are we headed toward a time where the distinction between able bodied and disabled sport will continue to blur? Or is Pistorius, as he’s already proven to be, exceptional beyond anything we’ve seen? Time will tell, but in the meantime I have one more Paralympian I’ll be cheering on after the Olympic Games close.