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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle