Monday, August 6, 2012

"Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorious Has No More "Advantage" Than Others

South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorious - who just  happens to be a double-amputee who runs with prosthetic "blades"- made history this week by running in the Olympics, not the para-Olympics.  Though he failed to qualify for  the finals after he placed seventh in his semi-final heat of the 400-meter race, he actually made history by even competing.  Making it to the semi-finals was a bonus beyond anyone's wildest expectations.  Oscar's story is one of the incredibly inspirational narrative that we only understand when events like the Olympics bring them to light.  It is a feel-good story that wouldn't seem to have a downside.  However, people never cease to amaze.  Perhaps the more disheartening side of the story is the struggle he went through - not all his life as a double amputee but - when some athletes and countries protested his initial inclusion in the Games because his prosthetic blades gave him an "unfair advantage" over  athletes running on two legs.  I know, I know.  It was certainly baffling.  Obviously, the loss of his legs as a child should certainly outweigh any "bionic" advantage the blades give him.  Alas, the man who has become affectionately known as "Blade Runner" fought through even more adversity for the right to compete, and has given the world new perspective on the idea of disability.

However, the controversial issue of Blade Runner's alleged "advantage" got me thinking about how to gauge and measure that very concept.  In reality, countless athletes from "advantaged" nations have advantages and benefits that allow them - and their countries - to excel at the games.  Isn't superior coaching based on national - or private - funding a huge and instrumental "advantage" in athletic achievement?  Consider the physical and emotional advantages gleaned by middle class suburban American kids who can have paid coaches and well funded athletic programs from the time they are six years old.  That is a nearly insurmountable advantage over smaller - and less well funded  - countries.  Can anyone deny the advantage that money plays in American and Chinese dominance in swimming and gymnastics?  And, what about the role of adequate - or even exceptional - health care and nutritional opportunities?  Michael Phelps was supposedly on a 12,000-calorie diet during his rigorous training regimen.  That opportunity doesn't exist for many aspiring Olympians - especially in places like the Ivory Coast or Guatemala or Sri Lanka.

Clearly, the athletes of the most highly developed and well funded nations - especially the USA - have considerable advantages over others.  Thus, parsing the issue to challenge the right of Oscar Pistorious based on his "advantage" was really quite ridiculous.  Instead, congratulations and accolades are due for Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorious who has enabled us to redefine our ideas about what is possible.

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