“He’s such a great guy, a great person, a great ambassador for sport no matter where you’re from. We’ve come to love him in Britain. We see him on posters, commercials… From a humanitarian point of view, why not? Just love it. It’s just… where will it end? Should he start winning, getting in to finals – that will start a whole fresh debate about whether it’s fair or not.”
I don’t know about you, but when I heard those words, spoken by Denise Lewis about South African Olympic athlete and Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius, my heart fell right through the floor. In 2012 – and particularly at a Games where we’ve seen gender barriers shattered and the wonderful multiculturalism of Britain celebrated – we’re still hearing this kind of extraordinarily painful commentary every time an athlete who happens to have a disability takes to the stage.
To be scrupulously fair, I appreciate it’s hard not to notice the difference between Pistorius and this fellow track stars. As he made the transition from the Paralympics (at which he will still compete in the coming weeks) to the Olympics, making history in the process, there were panels that had to consider whether it was possible for him to do so. They made what was clearly a considered and experienced judgement that if he could qualify, he should compete – just like anyone else. That should be where the story ends. And yet every time he appeared on the track, the question of whether he had an ‘unfair advantage’ was put to practically everyone and anyone, from sports pundits and ex-athletes to kinesiologists and competitors; it was even discussed at length in Scientific American. Meanwhile, across the web a picture of Pistorius circulated with Scott Hamilton’s inspirational quote emblazoned on it – a case of good intentions that only served to create a wider gulf of understanding.
It’s harsh to single out Lewis’s statement, I know, and I have no intention of doing a hatchet job on a woman whose achievements and opinions I generally admire and respect. She was asked for her opinion and gave it honestly. It’s just that really, in every way, it represents everything that’s wrong with the way we talk about people with disabilities. I suspect I’ve been guilty of it myself, especially as I don’t have any disabilities; even by writing this I’m very aware that it would be better if the voice was one that came from a place of experience. I can only hope that in the end I’m not doing what I accuse our media of doing: turning people with disabilities into an ‘other’, and either disregarding achievements or constructing a rather patronising pedestal. My intention is to check privilege – including my own – and call out uncomfortable manifestations of it.
Because look at those words: “such a great guy”, “humanitarian”, “fair”. When Pistorius was selected for the Olympics, he wasn’t looking for anyone’s pity. His ambitions were, unsurprisingly, the same as those of any other athlete: “…I am aiming to race well, work well through the rounds, post good times and maybe even a personal best time on the biggest stage of them all.” Obviously he knew perfectly well that his appearance would be a milestone for both the Olympics and the Paralympics, and that should be celebrated. But just imagine for a minute if the coverage of Nicola Adams, who bagged the first ever women’s Olympic boxing gold due to fact that the sport had never been included in the Games before, had suffered from the same condescending tone.
Ultimately it just felt uncomfortably like too many people were basically tipping their heads gently to the side, screwing up their faces and saying “oh well, go on then”; indulging the child who impressed beyond their apparent capabilities. The way in which the discussion has been framed is such that it’s painfully clear that those in the public eye most able to take Pistorius for what he is, an athlete, are his competitors – his equals, in fact. They too are obviously aware of the continuing conversation around their rival, and it’s led to some pointed defences. The most memorable of these came from Kirani James, who swapped numbers with Pistorius after the latter was eliminated from the 400m men’s finals, “I just see him as another athlete and another competitor, and more importantly I see him as another person.”
In the twenty-first century, should we need this reminder that people with disabilities are people first and foremost? Judging by what we’ve recently seen and heard, I guess we do.
[Image: Oscar Pistorius by Elvar Pálsson]