Oscar Pistorious and the Rights of Disabled Athletes

by Kevin Jon Heller

The California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage wasn’t the only good human-rights news yesterday. Also exciting is the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to allow Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter, to compete for a place in the Beijing Olympics:

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the 21-year-old South African is eligible to race against able-bodied athletes, overturning a ban imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

CAS said the unanimous ruling goes into effect immediately.

“I am ecstatic,” Pistorius told reporters in Milan, Italy. “When I found out, I cried. It is a battle that has been going on for far too long. It’s a great day for sport. I think this day is going to go down in history for the equality of disabled people.”

Pistorius still must reach a qualifying time to run in the individual 400 meters at the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Games. However, he can be picked for the South African relay squad without qualifying. That relay squad has not yet qualified for the Olympics.

Pistorius appealed to CAS, world sport’s highest tribunal, to overturn a Jan. 14 ruling by the IAAF that banned him from competing. The IAAF said his carbon fiber blades give him a mechanical advantage.


In its ruling, the CAS said the IAAF failed to prove that Oscar Pistorius’ prosthetic running blades give him a competitive advantage.

The IAAF based its January decision on studies by German professor Gert-Peter Brueggemann, who said the J-shaped “Cheetah” blades were energy efficient.

Pistorius’ lawyers countered with independent tests conducted by a team led by MIT professor Hugh M. Herr that claimed to show he doesn’t gain any advantage over able-bodied runners.

CAS said the IAAF failed to prove that Pistorius’ running blades give him an advantage.

“The panel was not persuaded that there was sufficient evidence of any metabolic advantage in favor of a double-amputee using the Cheetah Flex-Foot,” CAS said. “Furthermore, the CAS panel has considered that the IAAF did not prove that the biomechanical effects of using this particular prosthetic device gives Oscar Pistorius an advantage over other athletes not using the device.”

Pistorius was born without fibulas — the long, thin outer bone between the knee and ankle — and was 11 months old when his legs were amputated below the knee.

I find Pistorius’s story profoundly inspiring — there were tears in my eyes as I read the ESPN article. And it’s fitting that the decision comes less than two weeks after the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons entered into force.

Pistorius, of course, is only the latest disabled athlete to earn the right to compete against his abled peers. We can’t forget the equally inspiring struggles of golfer Casey Martin, who convinced the Supreme Court to let him use a cart on the PGA Tour, or Marla Runyan, who became the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics when she ran the 1500 meters in Sydney in 2000. And, of course, their stories connect to a much broader narrative of increasing equality in sport, a narrative that runs from Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King to Mianne Bagger, a transgender golfer from Denmark whose efforts led the International Olympic Committee, the Ladies Golf Union, and the United States Golf Association to allow transgendered athletes to compete.

I’ve never been much of a track-and-field fan. But you can bet I’ll be glued to the television if, as expected, Oscar Pistorius competes in Beijing.

POSTSCRIPT: There are obviously dozens more wonderful stories of athletes who compete despite disabilities or discrimination. As a baseball fan, I always rooted for Jim Abbott, who had a very good career as a pitcher for the Angels, Yankees, Brewers, and my beloved White Sox despite having only one hand. I hope readers will weigh in with the stories they find most inspiring.


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