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Oscar Pistorious and Fairness

September 27, 2012

Oscar Pistorius, the so-called “Blade Runner”, is a Paralympic, and now Olympic, athlete who runs wearing prosthetic legs from the knee down. It’s a fantastically inspirational story, and the kind of unbelievable, against all-odds triumph over adversity that the modern media adores. I’m sure that it’s also particularly inspiring to all sorts of people with physical disabilities, proving once and for all that they can succeed on their own terms in any field, even in the highest echelon of athletic competition. There’s an adorable picture of Pistorius running with a little girl in a dress with her own tiny blade-prosthetics. You’d have to be a monster to look at that picture and not have your heart warmed, just a little.

I am not a monster. This is adorable.

I say the above because I want to make it perfectly clear that I bear no ill will towards Oscar Pistorius. I understand the appeal, and I understand all that he represents. However, I strongly believe that Pistorius shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the Olympics. I’m going to talk about Pistorius, and running, and fair competition. But first, I’m going to talk a little about myself.

When I was in high school, I ran middle distance. The middle distance races, for those of you who aren’t aware, are the 400m, the 400m hurdles, and the 800m. They’re also, famously, the hardest races on the track. They’re too long for the pure sprinters, and too short for the pacing and endurance of the long-distance runner. You basically run as fast as you can the entire time, but the distance is just too long for that to work. When running the 400, around the 300-meter mark, your body hits the limit of its ability to run anaerobically (as sprinters do), and the oxygen debt that you’ve been building up for the last 30 seconds or so. It’s called “hitting the wall”, and if you’re doing it right, it’s barely even a metaphor. There’s an almost palpable impact, only instead of a wall in the space in front of you, the wall is within your own body. (The times are faster in the Olympics, but the wall is the same. If you have a chance, check out video of this year’s 400m hurdles, and look at the difference in form between the first hurdle and the last one.) It’s a hard race, and most people who can plausibly specialize in something else choose to. The remainder are those unlucky few who are naturally talented a the middle distances, and those who don’t have any especially credible alternatives. I was in the latter group, and so I ran middle distance.

I wasn’t bad at my events by any means. However, I can freely admit that I was at best a journeyman middle-distance runner. I was never going to break school records, or even get a gold medal, but I’d do the workouts, run in meets, set personal bests, and occasionally qualify for finals heats. I could run the 400m in under a minute, and the 400m hurdles in just a few seconds more. In the grand scheme of things, those are pretty good times. 95% of people in the world can’t do that at any point in their lives. But they aren’t particularly good once you’re in a competition. I was pretty good. Never great, but pretty good.

Every year my high school takes part in a regional competition of expat schools called IASAS (Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools). In American terms, it’s probably closer to state finals than regionals, since there are only 6 schools in IASAS, but they’re all decently sized schools with well funded athletic departments that draw from a fairly broad talent base. Making the IASAS squad was as close as our team had to a cutting process. Everybody was welcome to practice as long as there was room on the track, and only when the competitions loomed near was any distinction made. In my four years of running, I qualified for IASAS in one event, during my junior year: the triple jump, another red-headed stepchild of an event that nobody wants to do. I wasn’t especially good at the triple jump either, but we didn’t have many people to enter in that event, and so I did. We had a lot of talent on the team, and a couple of very good middle distance runners, so I didn’t make the cut in my running events. But it didn’t really bother me. I had always been on Track team, but now I was officially on the Track team.

My senior year, most of my training time was concentrated on the 400m hurdles, the event in which my coaches had determined I had the best, shall we say, comparative advantage. Protestations about it’s undesirability aside, I actually loved the hurdles, and I still do. There’s something beautiful about watching hurdlers, well, hurdle. But even more, there’s something beautiful about the feeling you get when you’re doing it. It’s not quite a step, but it isn’t quite a jump either. It’s just a little extra extension, a little extra power, you stretch your upper body, tuck your trailing leg, lean for balance, and…nothing. You glide over, like there’s nothing underneath you, like you didn’t even notice. It’s been over a decade since I came within 10 feet of a hurdle, but even now I can remember the feeling. I’ll walk down the street and see fences about waist high and think to myself: “Yeah, I could do it. Just a little run up, a little lean, an extension and…” Of course, I couldn’t really. And of course, I never try. I realize it sounds a little bit like describing a drug high, and maybe that’s not too far off. Maybe that’s all it is, just the memories of endorphins. Or maybe just the memory of being 17 and in the best shape of your life.

A few weeks before the end of the season that year, my coaches gave me a target. “Break 63 seconds,” they said, “and you’ll make the team.”

I’m not going to say that I busted my ass or went above and beyond to make that mark. Now, I don’t even remember if it seemed like a sincere offer, or just motivational coach-speak. I trained hard, which was the way I always trained, and on the last time trial before the end of the season, I hit the mark. Just under the line.  I was happy: a personal best always does that, but I also remembered the offer, and my coaches did too. In my memory, at least, the coach timing me seemed more excited and congratulated me a little more than usual.

If I’ve been telling the story effectively, you can probably guess where it’s going by now. The day they posted the roster for the IASAS squad came, and I wasn’t on the list. There was no mistake, the roster was full, all the spots were taken, but I wasn’t on there. I was surprised, as were my team-mates, but I don’t think we ever talked about it. Which is just as well. If anybody asked me, I wouldn’t have had an explanation. I was a senior, had been on the team for four years, and did pretty well in all my events. I just wasn’t fast enough. There were 4 middle distance runners who were either faster or more versatile that I was, so I didn’t make the cut. It happens. In fact, it happens much more often than it doesn’t.

Later, I heard second hand that it had been a very difficult choice for my coaches, both of whom I was pretty close to, having spent a great deal of time with them both on the field and in the classroom. One coach apparently told his wife that going to school that day was the hardest day in his career. Presumably they had chosen who was best for the team. As it turns out, they chose well, since we did win the meet that year. It’s hard to argue with results. As for myself, I don’t really remember how I felt. I could say I was crushed, or numb from the shock, but in actual fact I simply don’t remember. Disappointed, certainly, but, as far as I remember, not really all that surprised. Dealing with it after the fact, I remember mostly just hoping to avoid awkward questions.

My high school was small enough that everybody pretty much knew who everybody else was, and so most people knew that I was on the Track team. It was part of my identity, the way that things are in High School, like being a band geek, or a dancer, or a computer nerd. So, not talking about would be a little harder when confronted with the fact that I wasn’t in the meet. Fortunately, my school was hosting the meet that year, so I was able to sign up to help run the event, and had to get permission from various teachers whose classes I would be missing in the meantime. At least one assumed I was competing rather than administering, and wished me luck. I thanked her.


So, what does this have to do with Oscar Pistorius? I’m not telling this story out of bitterness, or seeking pity. It isn’t seared into my mind as a traumatic event. In fact, I don’t even remember if the 63 second mark I cited above is accurate. Honestly, it was probably higher.

I don’t think that I had some hidden talent that, if only nurtured, could have transformed me into a world class athlete. That isn’t true, I know that isn’t true now, and I knew it wasn’t true then. My running career was never going to extend past high school. I knew this in part because my brother, who is two years older and a good 5 seconds faster than me, had attempted to join his college Track team as a walk-on during his freshman year, and quit after one week. Apparently, throwing up after practice five days in a row didn’t agree with him. So my expectations were pretty well set. No matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be a College athlete, let alone an Olympian. I’d lost the genetic lottery when it comes to being an Olympic runner. I was born with the incredibly common condition called “not being fast enough”.

Oscar Pistorius was born with a rare condition called hemimelia, which means he was born missing a bone in his legs, and so his legs were amputated about midway through the shin before he was a year old. Fortunately, thanks to modern prosthetics he’s been able to participate in a number of sports throughout his life including water polo and tennis. What he’s accomplished is fantastic, and I want to be clear that I am not in any way disparaging him or his accomplishments.

But he shouldn’t be running in the Olympics. I believe this because of what I believe the purpose of the Olympics to be, the “design goal” that serves as the guideline for all the rules that we may introduce. To me, the Olympics are above all else about exploring the limits of the human body. How we express the challenges that the human body is facing can vary, and give birth to a whole host of different events. But at their core, these events are all asking the same question. Pistorius is no longer exploring this goal, and should not be allowed to compete.

Note that although this does carry the same justification as the one used to limit the use of performance-enhancing drugs, it doesn’t actually matter whether Pistorius’s prosthetic legs give him an advantage over his able-bodied competitors. (I have some serious reservations about the way they judged whether he has an advantage, but it’s irrelevant to the current discussion. However, I also present this, without comment.) The Olympic games aren’t about exploring the limits of the ingenuity of the human mind and materials sciences. They also aren’t really about exploring the boundless indefatigability of the human spirit, otherwise it would just be a strange masochist’s convention. The Olympics, to the extent that they have an over-arching goal, are about marveling at the limits of what the human body can do. If you can no longer compete with the human body unassisted, you no longer qualify. A different competition may be interested in what you have to offer, but the Olympic Games are not. We even have a competition that has been designed specifically to explore the question of what an assisted human body can do: the Paralympics. I would even go so far as to state that it is disrespectful to the Paralympic games to allow one athlete to compete in both. Instead of being two different classes of competitors, you’ve now defined the Paralympics as simply being a competition for people who can’t make it in the regular Olympics. You’ve devalued the significant accomplishments of Paralympians.

You’ll note that I’ve made an arbitrary distinction above. I’ve decided to place the barrier to entry of the Olympic games at the unassisted human body. But this arbitrariness isn’t a weakness: the entry criteria are always going to be arbitrary by definition. You could just as well put the entry criteria anywhere else. In this year’s games, we even established that the entry criteria exclude people who really want to win. We also already make an arbitrary distinction that we have two completely different competitions based on the kinds of chromosomes the athlete carries. No matter how obvious the distinction between the genders may appear to be to us, it isn’t really: it’s an arbitrary cultural distinction, and the line isn’t as clear as you might think (ask Caster Semenya). The best female athletes don’t compete in the men’s divisions (ask Ye Shiwen). Why should the entry criteria be permeable in one case but not the other?

Yes, it’s unfair to Pistorius, and many other handicapped athletes. But, like most other skill based endeavors, sports aren’t fair. We strive to make them as fair as possible once the players are on the field and the whistle is blown, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Once you factor in considerations of how the players got to the field, a truly even playing field doesn’t exist; fairness is just a story that we like to tell ourselves. Not every player has the potential to be equally good if he works just as hard. An inner city kid from a program with no money does not have the same chance of success as an equally talented but affluent one. Famously, Freakonomics reported that you may be more likely to become a professional hockey player if you’re born in the right month, because due to the age cutoff for the little leagues you’re consistently bigger than the other players throughout the youth programs and so get more play time, coaching, and ultimately, success.

When I was born, I was never going to be an Olympic athlete. From where I sit, when Oscar Pistorius was born, he wasn’t going to be either. You may say this isn’t fair, and while I agree, it starts to call into question whether this concept of fairness even makes sense. The idea of an even playing field is a fundamental part of the Olympic dream, and it’s also especially dear to the American dream. Anybody can be anything, if they just work hard enough. But that isn’t true, and it’s never been true, and it seems like a lesson that we’ve forgotten as a culture.

One thing the Olympics can teach is us what it means to dream and strive and achieve. But maybe it can also teach us a lesson about how to recognize privilege, and unfairness, and what we can do about it. The lesson of unfairness may not feel as good, but maybe that’s exactly why it’s such an important one to be teaching.

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3 Comments
  1. Thanks, I really enjoyed this post. A friend pointed me to it because of the different take it has on this issue compared to something I wrote during the Olympics: http://dirk.knemeyer.com/2012/08/15/athletic-competition-and-the-future/

  2. okcrow permalink

    I agree with you. Some time ago they had a pro golfer with a medical condition that prevented him from walking very far. The PGA allowed him to use a golf cart while playing in PGA tournaments. Equally wrong. And pro football players should not be able to play wearing a cast they can use as a club either. BTW, in the original Greek Olympics players did not wear anything at all, thus no one had any “hidden” advantage. I think that would boost ratings if it were implemented today.

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