Running Talk: Is a Disability an Unfair Advantage?

Nope, you didn’t read the title wrong, I swear!

I subscribe to a litany of magazines (and yes, I’m old school, still get them in the mail, and no, I don’t have a Kindle either. I’m sticking to paperback for as long as possible!) Anyway, one of my longest-standing subscriptions is to Outside magazine. I was reading last night, and came across a story about Oscar Pistorius.


Maybe you’ve heard about him before but I hadn’t. Oscar is a South African who is a double amputee sprinter. That alone, to me, is incredible. But even more incredible? This guy is world-class. Like, seriously fast. He had set his sights on qualification for the 2008 summer Olympics, but this is when all hell broke loose. Because of his unprecedented speed on his so-called “Cheetah legs”, the IAAF ruled that his prosthetic limbs give him an unfair advantage against other, able-bodied athletes.

Think about that for a second. The man with two prosthetic legs has an advantage? Riiiiiiight.

This decision was reached after a doctor at Cologne Sports University ran some tests on Pistorius. Because of the IAAF rule (amended in 2007) that banned, “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device,” the doctor wanted to discover whether these Cheetah legs gave Pistorius an advantage. In the end, the Cologne doctor said that the legs did, in fact, give Pistorius a large advantage and the IAAF gave their ruling. Of course, Pistorius got a lawyer and flew to the US where more tests were conducted at Rice University. This time around, the tests concluded that the initial results were not conclusive or well-researched, and the IAAF revoked their original ruling against Pistorius.

Make sense?!

Since then, Pistorius has been included on the South African team for the World Championships in Daegu. However, a wildfire of controversy has been swirling the web and the running world: does he have an unfair advantage because of his prosthetic legs??

Some people say absolutely not; how can a man with two prosthetic limbs have an advantage over able-bodied runners? However, those on the other side of the line say that there is no way a man with two legs severed below the knee could possibly run this fast. Conclusion? The Cheetah-legs must be giving him an advantage. I even read an interview (and don’t ask with who, because I already forgot!) with another runner who said, in summary, that Pistorius had an advantage because he didn’t have to deal with ankle and calf problems like other able-bodied runners. Hmmmmm…..

The way I see it, there is a problem with the latter’s logic. If the limbs are the only reason that Pistorius is performing so well on the world level, how come no other double amputee before him has been able to do it? If the speed is a direct result of the Cheetah-legs, wouldn’t all other amputees be just as fast? Obviously this isn’t the case. The way I see it, Pistorius is fast because he is an athlete; an amazing runner at that.

You know, this isn’t the first time this argument has been swirled around when an athlete does the unexpected. In the beginning, how many times did Lance Armstrong have to prove that his cancer treatments were not, in fact, helping him win the Tour de France? (Doping accusations saved for a later date, thank you!)

I guess, in the end, this controversy fires me up because it is close to my heart. As I’ve mentioned on here before, I do a lot of volunteer work with Special Ed kiddos, as well as individuals with physical disabilities. A lot of the people I teach at WP are amputees or double amputees, and I’ve never once thought of their disability as an advantage to their lifestyle. Instead, I think of them as amazing; I think of them as fighters; and I think of them as courageous. Pistorius is no different. The man is an athletic machine, and deserves recognition for the feats he is accomplishing. But that’s just my opinion.

What do you think? Are the Cheetah legs an advantage?
Can a disability ever be an unfair advantage? Can the adaptive technology/equipment provide an advantage?

PS Did you see my upcoming zombie race?? Any amazing costume ideas for me??


  • Reply Julie October 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I’m with you all the way on this one!

  • Reply Julia October 18, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    i totally have heard this argument but seriously…obviously the guy has got to have some serious heart, passion and determination getting him to his goals. regardless of the cheetah legs…the heart and determination are likely strong enough to carry him a long way!

  • Reply Lena @ Fit on the Rocks October 19, 2011 at 3:07 am

    I doubt that they’re an advantage. It takes him almost half the race to even get into the front, and then he has to haul ass to finish fast.

    I have a bunch of friends doing the Organ Trail, too! Have funnn!

  • Reply Kayla Carruth October 19, 2011 at 3:22 am

    That is so ignorant. All athletes have obstacles to overcome: mind, pulmonary, cardio, a muscle or bone injury that can happen anywhere in your body. . . . . . Just because he happened to successfully overcome his obstacles, people feel extra threatened by his strength. If I were him, I’d take it as a compliment to the extreme.

  • Reply Kara October 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I’m with you on this one! This is like complaining that wheelchair athletes get a head start at races…LAME.

    I have heard of one disability that doesn’t allow you to feel pain. Now THAT would be an advantage. 🙂

  • Reply Christi October 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    First, I love your blog!

    Second, I agree with yo on this one.

  • Reply Ali Mc October 19, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I do agree. It’s just not right and kara’s comments always make me laugh

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