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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue