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.