After losing his T44 200m race at the Paralympics the South African ‘blade runner’, Oscar Pistorius, threw a strop. He complained that his conquering Brazilian rival, Alan Oliveira, had been using blades that were too long. Of course, as Oliveira and Paralympics officials pointed out, the size of the blades used by Oliveira were within the guidelines, which are based on a prediction of an athlete’s most likely lower leg length given the dimensions of the rest of his body.
But although it seems that Pistorius was wrong and that Olivera acted within the rules of his sport, with the former perhaps just venting his frustration at losing, it does open up a host of questions about the nature of disability and the nature of sport. One issue is how to group athletes in the Paralympics. This is done based on the level of functionality that an athlete has available to him or her at the moment. But Pistorius’s claims raise doubts about whether the equipment being used is similar enough.
One solution to this problem would be to add even more classifications to an already crowded programme based on prosthesis type and dimensions. Going beyond Paralympic sport, where grouping of athletes is so commonplace, we then get into an issue of what should be considered a reasonable sporting contest to have more generally. Should Usain Bolt only be allowed to race against other tall people? Should a gymnastics classification be introduced for women over 70kg?
Certainly we see plenty of able-bodied sports where to make it a worthwhile contest, even at the top level, classifications are required. The most obvious distinctions being between men and women and in the weight categories of boxing, judo, weightlifting, and so on. But also within technological sports including classes of boats, cars, and guns. Should able-bodied sports take their lead from the Paralympics and use different categories much more extensively? Basketball for men under 1.8m perhaps.
Of course, at some point you have to draw the line. If the classifications become too fine-grained then we arrive at the absurd situation where everyone gets a medal. That sounds lovely but it would take much of the meaning out of sport. It would be reduced to a social activity with a fitness element. It is the knowledge that they face real competition, and must train hard and take their preparations seriously to stand a chance of winning, that makes athletes get out of bed in the morning.