Oscar Pistorius, a South African quarter-miler who became the first athlete with a disability to qualify for the Olympic Games this year, was born with a rare condition that caused the amputation of both legs below the knee. Pistorius runs on “blades,” and though there is no evidence that the blades provide Pistorius with any competitive advantage over his fellow runners, his participation has sparked a needless controversy from writers and analysts like CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel, who thinks the precedent set by Pistorius’ participation could “ruin the Olympics.”
The nut of Doyel’s argument is that while Pistorius’ story is “a great one,” it isn’t fair for him to run against “able-bodied” athletes because at some hypothetical point in the future, a disabled runner using prosthetic blades will have an unfair advantage over athletes with legs. That, Doyel says, is a dangerous precedent:
But Pistorius represents so much more than one man, one country, even one Olympiad. He represents every amputee from this day forward, and once he runs in the 2012 Games, the precedent will have been set. And it’s not a good one.
The small problem with Doyel’s argument is that it depends solely on a hypothetical, one the International Olympic Committee is capable of dealing with. If technology becomes an artificial advantage, it is an easy problem to address, the same way the IOC bans performance-enhancing drugs and dealt with the swimming suit controversy from the 2008 Beijing Games. And Doyel either isn’t aware of or doesn’t mention the story of George Eyser, a gymnast whose six medals at the 1904 Olympics remain the only ever won by an athlete with an artificial leg. Far from being ruined, the Olympics continued to grow and prosper for the next 108 years.
The larger problem, though, is that Doyel and others that share his view have seemingly lost a perspective of what the Olympic Games are for, something that is easy to do in a country that regularly finishes at the top of the medal count and where sports, for better or worse, are played solely to win. But here, lest Doyel or anyone else forget, is the Olympic mission:
The purpose of the Olympic Movement is to:– link sport with culture and education;– promote the practice of sport and the joy found in effort;– help to build a better world through sport practised in a spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect.
This mission is what led the IOC to negotiate the addition of first Saudi Arabian women in Olympic history to the kingdom’s team even though they didn’t qualify. It is what leads athletes across the globe to chase the Olympic dream even if they have no chance of challenging better athletes for a gold medal. It is what brought Jesse Owens to the Third Reich, Pyambu Tuul to Barcelona, a united Korea to Sydney, and a man with no legs to London.
The Olympics are as much about the stories of overcoming adversity and challenging global and personal barriers as they are about champions and their medals. Oscar Pistorius won’t ruin that. Attitudes like Doyel’s will.