Nowhere to run

James Medhurst points out that the purpose of sport is not to create a level playing field but rathe

The South African runner Oscar Pistorius has been banned from competing in the Beijing Olympics this summer. The reason given is that the ‘blades’ used by the double-amputee in place of his lower legs will give him an unfair advantage over the other athletes. This seems to be a sensible decision to me but not to Pistorius, who intends to challenge it at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. Several other commentators such as the makers of a sympathetic documentary broadcast on Channel Five earlier in the month, seem to agree with Pistorius.

I am not qualified to talk about the science behind the decision (although nor are many of the other people who have spoken about it), however even if there is any doubt whether he does have an advantage, to use that as the basis to challenge the reasoning of the International Association of Athletics Federations completely misses the point. The purpose of sport is not to create a level playing field, as this would simply undermine the meaning of competition, but rather to compare like with like. Even if horses and greyhounds ran at comparable speeds, they would not be placed in the same race. I must tread carefully here because Paralympians and Olympians are, of course, members of the same species but there are still major physiological differences. Similarly, cyclists do not race against marathon runners nor rowers against yachtsmen.

To those raised on the civil rights movement and the South African boycott, the previous paragraph may seem to be a rather odd rejection of integration in favour of segregation. However, disability is not like race. In most areas of life, from education to medical care and from employment to leisure, integration is a desirable goal but it will not be achieved by treating disabled people as though we are the same as everybody else because we are not. Simply to throw a double leg amputee into a building without any lifts and tell him that he is treated equally because he can buy a trendy new prosthesis to help him to climb stairs will not be effective. The solution is to change the building and not to change him.

Rather than thinking about race, a better comparison is with sex. It used to be thought by feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir that women could only be equal by becoming like men and that women who wanted to have children should abandon childbearing in favour of their work goals. Fortunately, we have moved on and even the Conservative Party now recognises that family-friendly policies are the way to create genuine equality without a need for women to compromise their womanhood. I should state here, for the record, that I am not saying that we are anywhere near to achieving equality – I live in the real world after all – simply that we at least have some idea of what it would look like. Similarly, we feel that we have progressed from the Ancient Greeks by allowing women to take part in the Olympics, but we still do not consider it meaningful for them to compete against men.

The tragedy of Oscar Pistorius is that he would prefer to be fiftieth in the world and seen as the same as everyone else rather than being the best in the world and seen as different. The irony is that his blades may also be banned from the Paralympics because his rivals cannot afford them but he apparently refuses to switch to standard blades in order to be allowed to compete. His firm rejection of disability sport may prematurely end his career.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.