Oscar Pistorius makes history as first amputee athlete selected for the Olympics

The "Blade Runner" has been picked for South Africa's 4x400m team.

Oscar Pistorius has made history today by getting selected for South Africa’s 4x400m Olympics relay team. He will become the first amputee track athlete to compete at the Games. He came very close to qualifying for the individual 400m, missing out by less than a quarter of a second in his final qualifying race.

Pistorius was born without lower leg bones, and runs on crescent-shaped carbon fibre blades known as “Cheetah Flex-Feet”. Last year, he became the first amputee athlete to compete in the World Athletics World Championships, where he made the 400m semi-final.

The issue of whether his prosthetic limbs give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes has been fiercely debated throughout his career. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its competition rules, banning “any technical device... that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. The IAAF denied that the amendment was specifically aimed at Pistorius, although it did prevent him from competing against able-bodied athletes at top-level meets. However, the decision was overturned in May 2008 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which found that there was no evidence that Pistorius’ prosthetics gave him a net advantage over his competitors.

It was this ruling that paved the way for today’s selection. There will still be dissenters – those who feel that Pistorius should have to compete only in the Paralympic Games – but with the CAS ruling behind him and a relay qualifying time under his belt, there is nothing stopping him now. Now that he’s proved that performance is really the only criteria, Pistorius could well be just the first in a series of amputee athletes who make their nations’ squads. Whatever his athletic achievements turn out to be, he’s made history just by getting selected.

Pistorius is hugely popular in South Africa. And given that his compatriots came home from the Beijing Olympics with just one athletics medal, at least one whole nation will be cheering if the “Blade Runner” strikes gold.

 

Oscar Pistorius competing at the Paralympic World Cup in May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.