Recently sprinter Michael Johnson said that Oscar Pistorius should not be allowed to run at the 2012 London Olympic Games, citing what he believes to be an unfair advantage given by the South African sprinter's prosthetic leg blades. The problem is, Johnson's assertions simply have no basis in fact. According to his website, Pistorius underwent double amputation as a result of being born without fibulae in both legs. He competes in both single amputee and double amputee events as a Paralympian. He holds the Paralympic records in the 100, 200, and 400 m track events.
In July 2007, Pistorius began racing other able-bodied men at an International Association of Athletic Federations event finishing second in a 400 m race with a time of 46.90 seconds. Shortly thereafter, he underwent testing under the supervision of the IAAF which found that the blades Pistorius wore gave him an unfair advantage over other able-bodied runners by enabling him to expend less energy while running at the same speed over the course of a race.
Pistorius took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport following a series of tests done by researchers at Rice University. The CAS overturned the IAAF ruling saying the initial tests only considered Pistorius's speed over a straight line distance. They failed to consider problems getting out of the starting blocks and decreased acceleration ability which actually put Pistorius at a net disadvantage.
This is the backdrop surrounding Johnson's comments.
Now, before going any further, it is only fair for me to say that as someone in a wheelchair that has been able to achieve my goals and a high degree of workplace independence, I tend to view any claim that I can't do the same things anyone else can do on a level playing field with a certain degree of skepticism, no matter the reason. That being said, I would not want to compete if I had to be given an advantage in order to make it fair. However, there simply is no advantage here.
For one, Pistorius is running on blades, not human feet. This makes it very easy to trip if you step the wrong way, a fact pointed out by one of the athletes quoted in this San Francisco Chronicle article on amputee athletes.
Secondly, the numbers just don't reflect the advantage Johnson thinks Pistorius would have. Oscar Pistorius is the world record holder in all three events in which he competes. He is widely regarded as the fastest man ever with no legs. Yet, his fastest time in the 400 m for which he qualified is 45.07 seconds. By comparison, Johnson's world record-setting time for able-bodied athletes at the same distance is almost two seconds faster.
While we're at it, the argument that he already has the Paralympics to showcase his skills doesn't hold water with me. That's like saying the Major Leagues shouldn't be integrated because we have the Negro leagues or that women shouldn't play on the PGA Tour. Both of those things have come to pass. There is also nothing wrong with someone wanting to prove himself at the highest level.
Then there's the fact that I would probably be hard-pressed to find the Paralympics on TV anywhere, so clearly they are undervalued as compared to the main Olympic events, but I could likely do a whole separate post on that.
So when I tune into the Olympics, I will be keeping a close eye on the progress of Oscar Pistorius. There is simply no place in today's society for singling out those that could otherwise compete without advantage simply because they do it in a way we aren't used to.