It was perhaps the most memorable eighth-place finish in the history of track and field. On Monday at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa came last in his semifinal heat of the men’s 400-metre. Far more significant than the result, however, was the fact he was there at all.
Mr. Pistorius had both feet amputated below the knee as a child. Running on unique carbon-fibre prostheses, he is the first amputee to compete in a world championship race. Just to reach the semifinals, he had to beat many two-footed rivals. His ultimate goal is the 2012 London Olympics.
The mere sight of an athlete with as significant a disability as Mr. Pistorius at Daegu ought to be considered a momentous achievement for all humanity. A man with no feet running with the world’s best! Surely this is what a world without barriers should look like.
And yet his long journey has been burdened by many narrow-minded objections and barriers beyond the biological. His springy prostheses were initially banned by the IAAF in 2008 as an unsporting advantage. This claim that he was something of a bionic man was overturned on appeal. Since then, his artificial feet have not changed, though he has greatly improved his performance through rigorous training.
Still, some fellow competitors now gripe that he doesn’t have to worry about injuries that affect those with feet. Disability advocates openly fret that his success will encourage other disabled athletes to migrate to the Olympics and reduce the importance of the Paralympics. Even race organizers seem unimpressed. In the upcoming 4x400 metre relay race, the IAAF has declared that Mr. Pistorius can only run the opening leg, ostensibly to prevent injury to other runners. (Lacking ankles and toes, quick starts are his greatest weakness.) And the official championship website strangely played down his presence.
Mr. Pistorius is no threat to the integrity of sport. Rather, his modest success on the world stage provides one of sport’s most inspirational stories. And it proves the value of reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals. Everyone ought to have the opportunity to live, work or compete on equal footing – world-class runners included.
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