I am awed by the resilience of the athletes competing in the Paralympics. In many ways I admire them so much more than the drug cheats and money obsessives who starred in the main Olympics. These men and women embody in so many ways what participative sport should be about. And so please do not doubt that I respect and admire them hugely. But, I have a few questions and nagging thoughts which I wondered if I dared air in public since they will attract inevitable abuse and condemnation but I do so anyway. They are questions no one seems prepared to ask but I wonder if others might actually feel the same way.
The case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who also competed in the main Olympics raises two questions. This athlete has lost both his legs and competes on blades. In Sunday’s 200 metre final Oscar came second to a Brazilian runner, Alan Oliveira and promptly complained that his rival had effectively cheated by having blades that were 4 inches longer than his own so giving him a longer stride length. What Oscar is effectively saying is that what determines success in this event is not just the human body, fitness etc but the kit that each athlete uses. Is this pure sport?
I note, incidentally, that in coming first in the final Oliveira recorded a time of 21.38 seconds. In winning his semi final on Saturday Pistorious actually broke the world record with a time of 21.30 seconds and so I am not sure his excuse stands up to any scrutiny at all. In a festival where so many athletes celebrated merely taking part, the South African’s sour grapes rather lowered the tone of an event where generally “joy” has been an operative word.
But Pistorius raises another question. I note elsewhere reports that such are the advances in blade technology that within years it is expected that blade runners will outpace those without blades and so win Olympic (not Paralympics) golds. Is this really comparing like with like? Is it fair? If that had been the case in the 1970s I would imagine that the East German ladies team would have abandoned the drugs and turned to amputation as a way to win at all costs. It sounds horrible but you cannot treat as equal those who are patently unequal. It is pretence. That is why there is a separate event, the Paralympics. And why there should be separate world records for those with disabilities and those without. We are not all the same. That does not make us all capable of being less excellent but we are different. Such is life.
And if that has not upset enough folk already I am afraid I go one stage further with those who claim that the Paralympics either do have the same status at the Olympics or should have. That again is a pretence that we are all the same. That someone with one leg can achieve a new world record in the 100 metres freestyle (for folks with one leg) is a great achievement. But the fact is that they are far slower than all the competitors in the Olympics 100 metres freestyle. The Olympics is about celebrating the excellence of mankind, how as a species we are getting faster, stronger, etc. The Paralympics celebrates human achievement in the face of adversity. It is just different. And the fact that speeds in the pool are far slower makes it just that little bit less exciting (or for those of us who would pay not to watch any swimming, extends the torment).
I find basketball pretty ( no utterly) tedious to watch but can appreciate the amazing athleticism of hose tall guys who leap up to the basket and slam the ball in while swinging off the hoop. That is amazing as a spectacle – so I can handle edited highlights. I note the skill of wheelchair basketball. I am amazed at how good the players are and I cannot stress my admiration for their commitment. But as an athletic spectacle it just cannot compete. The same goes for soccer for the partially sighted. We are, by some, being asked to suspend that disbelief and pretend that as a spectator sport the two are equivalent. That is just untrue.
I am delighted that the Paralympics is proving such a success. But there are questions that are not being asked about blades etc that should be asked. And whilst I hope that the games go from success to success, to claim they are on an equal footing with the Olympics as either a spectacle or in what they celebrate is just pretence.