Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fear of Disability the Same on a Course or a Track

By SELENA ROBERTS
Sports of The Times
July 18, 2007

They uttered the preface of false sensitivity — “with all due respect” — as the sport’s officials launched into an insolent logic that ended with a warped depiction of a disabled athlete as the lucky one:

Your technology is such a gift that it cheats our human triumphs. Our image of courage is undermined by your annoying persistence. Now, if you could kindly retreat to the Island of Misfit Toys so our vision of an athlete will remain unthreatened.

Oscar Pistorius is the latest recipient of the Casey Martin treatment.

“This is the same kind of rhetoric,” Martin said when he was reached Monday, adding: “When they see something different, they put up resistance. It happened to me and now to this gentleman.”

Martin was born with a painful circulatory disorder that left his right leg atrophied and vulnerable to fracture. After ascending in his sport despite his disability, he fought intractable PGA officials for years to use a cart on tour.

Pistorius was born without a fibula in his lower legs, which necessitated a double amputation when he was 11 months old. After breaking Paralympic records, he is seeking a chance to qualify among able-bodied runners for the 2008 Beijing Games on the might of his talent and j-shaped prosthetic legs.

The sports and disabilities of Pistorius and Martin differ, but there are many parallels in ignorance and duplicity. In the late 1990s, the PGA’s lawyers argued for courts to reject Martin’s cart needs, declaring that fitness and stamina were competitive parts of an 18-hole round. And they did so without a note of satire during the John Daly era.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Martin’s favor under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Within minutes, incredulity settled over some Tour players.

“Now there’s the question, what is a disability?” Stuart Appleby said at the time. “My concern is that they’ve opened a can of worms, and how big is that can?”

An Altoids mint tin, at most. The predicted ant line of players who would claim a disability in order to use a cart never materialized.

There are fears of irrational levels swirling about Pistorius, too, with track bloggers and academics wondering if athletes will schedule elective amputations to be the next Bionic Man. Don’t they know Olympic athletes can’t so much as use a wart remover without a medical explanation?

“There’s not one runner in the world that would give up his legs to have what this runner does,” said Martin, now the golf coach at the University of Oregon. “That’s the situation I went through. I’d say, yes, having a golf cart would be nice at times for anyone, but no one would be willing to swap legs with me to have it.”

Martin is not offering naïveté here. Just reason. He, like everyone, would like to see the scientific findings on whether Pistorius’s prosthetic is fair and square. So far, it seems his carbon legs, called Cheetahs, may produce less wind resistance, but natural legs return more energy per stride. His footing may be spring bound, but his traction is poor on moist lanes.

It’s also worth pointing out that if Pistorius’s miracle legs were such an advantage, then all Paralympic runners would finish with times rivaling those of the best able-bodied athletes. In the debate of what’s fair, Pistorius has been diminished as an athlete.



This is the real failure of track leadership. The fear of the disabled athlete has become an obstruction to inspiration and a hindrance to track’s self-interest. For months, track officials have worried that the sanctity of their sport could be put at risk by Pistorius.

“It affects the purity of sport,” Elio Locatelli of the International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, has said. “Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”

First, George Jetson is not trying out for the Olympics. Second, a track executive’s claim on integrity is disingenuous given the history of doping scandals that have left track as a kissing cousin to cycling.

Track needs Pistorius to be seen, not shooed away. Track needs Pistorius to restore its image, not to be cast away in a squandered moment of inspiration.

“You think about all the people who come back from the war, and anyone in a situation where they lose a limb,” Martin said. “And then to see this guy run, do you know what that would do for people? They can say: ‘Hey, even if I don’t run in the Olympics, I can get out there and be active, be athletic. My life doesn’t have to come to an end.’ ”

Track officials should inspect the science and push for fairness but end a defiance that only illuminates their deficit of enlightenment. If research proves a competitive edge for Cheetahs, track’s caretakers can look for ways to modify Pistorius’s advantage. But they should do whatever it takes to make Pistorius a potential fit as an Olympic athlete.

Track’s insular officials should see Pistorius as someone who opens doors, not as a gate crasher to an Olympic ideal. His disability is an opportunity for track, not an absurd ally in cheating.

E-mail: selenasports@nytimes.com

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