By Dan O’Connor, PhD

 

Happy news, then, from South Africa, whence the marvelous Oscar Pistorius will become the first double-amputee athlete to compete in track and field at the Olympics games. The debate over whether or not Pistorius derives from his prosthetic ‘Cheetah’ feet any unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes has long since been put to bed (not least by Pistorius’s own performances which consistently rate him about 20th in the world and thus not really a medal threat) and so his inclusion in the notoriously selective South African squad is a matter for celebration. Anyone who needs this spelled out for them may need to reassess their views on human nature.

 

Particularly pleased, nay delighted, will be the television networks to whom Pistorius and his ‘flexi-feet’ represent the sort of stirring human interest story that a captive legion of heart-string-plucking Pixar writers could hardly come up with. Even the most casual viewer of track and field will be familiar with pre-packaged pre-race features detailing Pistorius’s life history and his fantastic struggle to compete against able bodied athletes. Come the Olympics only Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps can expect the sort of attention that NBC is likely to lavish upon Pistorius. And there’s good reason for this: Pistorius has done something extraordinary and has remained, throughout, a thoroughly decent-seeming guy, humble but determined and entirely respectful of his competitors even when the courtesy has not always been repaid.

 

But the difference between Bolt, Phelps and Pistorius is that Pistorius stands almost no chance of winning his event, or even of getting to the final. Whilst Bolt and Phelps might no longer be the locked-in gold medalists that they once were on track and in the pool, they remain the heavy favorites. Pistorius will do well to reach the semi-final of the 400m, the event for which he has qualified (a medal in the 4x400m relay, however, is not out of the question). The focus on Pistorius is not about his athletic ability, but about his athletic ability as mitigated by his disability. NBC, the BBC and other news outlets will focus on him not because he is a great athlete (which he is, just not as great as numerous other men in his event) but because he is a person with a disability who has overcome great adversity. On one level this is fair enough, but on another it strikes me as wildly patronizing.

 

In 2008 Pistorius was banned by the IAAF from competing against able-bodied athletes. He fought long and hard against the ban and it was overturned last year. Throughout, the argument of those of us who supported him was that i) he derived no unfair advantage from the prosthetics and thus ii) should be treated like any other athlete. It seems that news outlets have accepted the first part, but comprehensively failed to take on board the latter.

 

The constant focus on Pistorius’ inspirational story does him a serious injustice. It defines him by his disabilities rather than by the athletic talent for which he seeks to be judged by racing against able-bodied athletes. If we were truly serious about accepting Pistorius as an athlete, rather than rendering him into a useful symbol of the human spirit, there would be next to no mention of his prosthetic feet, or his being an amputee. Instead of, “and in lane seven it’s the inspirational ‘Blade Runner’, Oscar Pistorius” we would hear “and in lane seven it’s South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who will have to run a massive personal best to proceed to the final”. Oscar Pistorius, after all his titanic struggles, deserves honesty, not being turned into a Disney movie that we can all feel good about.

 

What Pistorius has done is amazing. I’m in awe of him and his achievements. Against every odd he has become an Olympic athlete. It’s time to treat him like one.

 

 

Dan O’Connor – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases

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