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London 2012: Oscar Pistorius and the Endless Debate

“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]

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About Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

I'm a blogger, social media manager, mum, film fan, feminist and food freak in any order you like. I will shoehorn Disney into any conversation. Follow me @mokuska.

7 comments on “London 2012: Oscar Pistorius and the Endless Debate

  1. Carrie
    August 12, 2012

    The Pistorius debate has pissed me off something chronic for years. If he makes the qualifying time, then he qualifies. That should be the end of it. It was karmic that LaShawn Merritt (who’s been banned previously, lest we forget) left the Games this year the way he did after his remarks about Pistorius.

    As for the “unfair advantage” – he’s got NO LEGS. You cut off both your legs and see if you can run in the Olympics if it’s such an advantage. (Facetiousness aside, I believe they do keep a close eye on the prosthetics he uses – I seem to recall that because of the bendiness of the “foot” the shock of impact is more evenly distributed than in “able-bodied” athletes, but the lack of movement higher up means the shock is more intense in his thighs.)

    • Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein
      August 12, 2012

      Absolutely. You know, every article I’ve read has focussed on something different – the weight of the prosthetics, vs the power it takes to move at the same speed as others, the impact distribution, the flexibility / lack of etc etc. And it’s as if there isn’t a person actually having to be strong enough and fast enough to even make the prosthetics relevant… depressing, isn’t it?

  2. diane
    August 14, 2012

    Ugh, the “unfair advantage” thing really pisses me off, and it’s so often used whenever a person with a disability wants any kind of special accommodation (as I did when I went back to uni, and was fought every step of the way until it became too disheartening to continue). Why can’t some people understand that it’s not the able-bodied people who have it tough?!

    • Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein
      August 14, 2012

      Exactly. Special accommodation for something you can’t do anything about is NOT special advantage. It’s just levelling the playing field – almost literally in this case. He is still an athlete who is stronger and faster than most people in the world. I can’t understand why that seems to be such a difficult concept for so many.

      Sent from my iPhone

      On 14 Aug 2012,

      • diane
        August 14, 2012

        Exactly! It is heartening that some people understand, at least. 🙂 It’s not his prosthetics that make his achievements remarkable, it’s his athletic ability.

  3. be wonderful!
    August 15, 2012

    Thank you for this clear and concise article. I too, was touched by Kirani James gesture.
    Oscar Pistorius is an inspiration and a great athlete.

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