Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Amputee runner is too 'able bodied'?

[visual description: Oscar Pistorius, who wears two prosthetic legs, beats a competitor in a Paralympic meet.}

First Tatyana McFadden had to file a lawsuit to compete against able bodied runners in her wheelchair at high school events and now an amputee runner is being challenged about competing against able bodied runners in the Olympics because it is felt that his "high tech" prosthetics give him an unfair advantage against mere able bodied mortals.

All kidding aside, I see this as a backlash against disabled athletes who have worked for years to be good at their sport and, well, get better than many able bodied competitors. Take Tatyana, for example. She's already won medals in the Paralympics despite being in high school. So if you put her on a track with high school kids, with her experience and training, it's not the same as a wheelchair athlete who is not as gifted, talented and well practiced and experienced. I play wheelchair sports and know the skill level runs the gamut - as it does with able bodied athletes.

The same is true with amputees. So is the real question being asked: Should athletes with disabilities who can beat able bodied competitors be banned ? Because it's not as if there has been a rush of disabled athletes to sports who have taken over the competitions here. In fact, the amputee runner in question here still has not reached the Olympic qualifying times in his runs - which brings up the question of how much advantage there really is and how much of this is about perception of people with disabilities.

First of all, we're talking about a few very gifted and talented athletes here and, based on the comments I see on the web about both of them, there is a knee jerk reaction along the lines of banning them due to an unfair advantage due to their equipment which they need in order to, well, run.

The first comment (if you click above) talks about how an athlete should remove his limbs to give himself an advantage. That's just mean spirited and ableist to boot. And after following Tatyana's case, I can tell you that many comments made about her fall in the same category. It is one thing to calmly look at whether the hypothesis that athletes with disabilities have an unfair advantage and able bodied runners some kind of, well, accommodation . (Gee how's that for a concept to wrap your mind around?)

It is quite another for people to immediately jump to the conclusion that athletes with disabilities should be banned from participating. Especially in track, there are ways to adjust times to accommodate any real advantage that equipment gives to athletes. But we do have to be careful that the real problem here isn't that of image: that some disabled athletes have become better than able bodied ones.

It reminds me of the day one of my friends watched as I used my voice recognition to do a task on my computer and said "Wow, that works faster than the way I do it and my hands work." After that, she kept telling me over and over how it was great that I could "get my work done faster" than everyone else because of that "advantage". So she went out and bought voice recognition. I received a phone call a month later from her and she said "It didn't work for me the way it does for you." I asked her if she practiced with it and she replied "Oh no I don't have the time. "

I've used voice recognition for many years now and it does work well for me. I've put a lot of work and training into maximizing my skill at it. But I know many quads who don't use it as much as I do and it doesn't work as well for them either. So my 'advantage' was earned.

I wonder how many of the runners that Tatyana competes against would choose to use a wheelchair in their meets because of its advantage - if they were given that option. My guess is they would lack the arm strength and training to beat her even if they used the same equipment she does. That's certainly true of many other athletes in wheelchairs who have raced against Tatyana.

Even those who got to the Paralympics.

And a doctor who has studied the biomechanics of amputee runners has this to say to the IAAF which is questioning Oscar's eligibility for the Olympics: "“I pose a question” for the I.A.A.F., said Robert Gailey, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Medical School....“Are they looking at not having an unfair advantage? Or are they discriminating because of the purity of the Olympics, because they don’t want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man for fear that if the person who doesn’t have the perfect body wins, what does that say about the image of man?”

"According to Gailey, a prosthetic leg returns only about 80 percent of the energy absorbed in each stride, while a natural leg returns up to 240 percent, providing much more spring."

“There is no science that he has an advantage, only that he is competing at a disadvantage,” Gailey, who has served as an official in disabled sports, said of Pistorius."

Via NY Times

1 comment:

goldchair said...

First time I've seen real data from a scientist about prosthetics in sports. As amazing as the high tech devices look it takes work and dedication to excel.