The Highs and Lows of Exceptionalism: Pistorius, the Olympics and the Paralympics

Femficatio News
9th August 2012, 13:29 GMT

‘I am struggling to find a way to describe it. It is really humbling all the support I have had’. Pistorius said about not making it to the semifinals.

Jerome Singleton, left, and Oscar Pistorius will likely face off again at the Paralympic Games. Getty Images

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa is an amazing runner who was given the opportunity to run in the 400m and the 4×400 relay at this year’s Summer Olympics.  He is a four-time Paralympic champion, has won Silver’s in the 400m and the 4x400m in the African Championships in 2012 and took a Silver at the World Championships in 2011.  He has graced the cover of Mens Health and GQ Magazines, and is sponsored by Nike, BT, Oakley, and Thierry Mugler.

Oscar is a bi-lateral below the knee amputee since early childhood. His competitive class is T43/T44 (for double and single below the knee amputees).

Oscar for South African GQ

He has been dubbed an inspiration to many. Occupational Therapists say he is a marvel to modern science to be able to compete against able-bodied athletes. Fellow competitors and teammates remark as to what a great guy he is and how he lives up to his motto: “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have; you are able by the abilities you have”.

After much controversy and a court battle with the IAAF, Oscar has been allowed to compete in the Summer Olympics, making him the first amputee athlete to compete with able-bodied runners.  Mr Pistorius  aka “Blade Runner”  was initially disqualified from the sport as the IAAF became unduly paranoid about the advantage his J-legs (Össur Flex-Foot Cheetah’s) afforded him against able-bodied runners.  Oscar failed in the 4×400 rally today, finishing last and proving that unfair advantage is the least of his worries.

We who are relatively able-bodied (as most of us writers have difficulty running for a bus, let alone 400m in 14 seconds) can never fully appreciate the desire for full acceptance when a body is as able and perfected in athletic ability as Pistorious’s.  We still wonder if the message sent is that an Olympic medal from the “normal” mainstream Olympic competitions’ is better than one from the Paralympics?

Abdi Jama Olympic Wheelchair Basketball Champion, Photo courtesy of AbdiJama.com

Pistorius will be back to compete in the Paralympics in London this year, yet one reporter wrote as their headline: “Olympic dream of double amputee Oscar Pistorius is over”. Over? He has another shot in a few weeks, and he is a shoe-in for the Gold in both the 400m and the 4x400m – so what, exactly, is over?

In a society that promotes and encourages exceptionalism (the exceptional First Black, the exceptional First Woman), what will a headline like that do to the esteem of the differently-abled who seek to find identity, validation and pride in what the able-bodied would deem as extreme limitations?  Shouldn’t we be more encouraging of spaces where people can be proud and self-determined, even if they don’t fit the exact image of the societal norms?

When an athlete of Pistorius’ calibre sets world records (as he routinely does in the Paralympics) there are young men and women athletes strapping on their J-Legs and trying to beat him. In their tracks around their schools, with their friends, and in any field they find there are people saying – I Am Oscar Pistorius.   And we all know Pistorius is already a hero in the eyes of many Paralympiads and all differently-able people around the world, and competing in the Summer Games doesn’t change that.

Oscar Pistorius exchanges race bibs with Kirani James of Grenada, the current Olympic world champion on 6th August.

Yet, I can’t help but be conflicted.  The Paralympics is less funded than the Olympics, the winners win less in prize money and the Games are so far separated from the end of the Olympics it has been criticised that its timing aids in disinterest amongst spectators. The Paralympic Games are not nearly as extensively covered in TV, and it’s treated as a “feel-good” for the so-called able-bodied.  And the fear, is that with all this inequity still existing between the Olympics and Paralympics, that athletes on Oscar’s level feel that they haven’t really accomplished anything by being extraordinary in their sport.  That the shiny brass ring is really when you are able to be just like everyone else.  Ability equals conformity.

And we’ve seen this happen before, particularly in the USA. When Universities were desegregated, enrollment rates for Historically Black Universities fell dramatically – quality diminished and many schools closed. Some Universities have held true to their history, expanding their acceptance rates of people of other ethnicities (minority quotas for White or Latino students for instance) and continued to grow in esteem, such as Spelman and Morehouse College in Atlanta. The same with Historically all-women colleges – originally designed to train the middle-class elite to be good wives, which (necessitated an intellectual acumen); these Universities have now expanded their Gender Studies and Women Studies Departments and held true to their original aims to offer a safe and supportive atmosphere for women – and yet and still, their enrollment rates drag in comparison to co-ed institutions.

Bonnie St John, Rhodes Scholar and Winter Paralympiad

I’m not saying that Pistorius as an athlete, doesn’t have a right to challenge himself against the other great athletes he admires and seeks to beat. I’m simply questioning critics for applauding Oscar’s participation in the Summer Olympics as a step toward furthering the equality of the differently-able; as they may indeed have the undesired effect of diminishing the self-esteem and world-wide esteem of Parlympiads and the Paralympic Games.

The Paralympics needs superstars like Oscar.

The Olympics has enough.

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