Should disabled athletes compete with able bodied athletes?

Last summer Oscar Pistorius competed in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. This started an important debate on whether or not someone with prosthetic limbs should be free to compete with those that don’t have prosthetic limbs. Continuing with this week’s theme of athletics, we look into the general arguments for and against disabled people competing with able bodied people.


Intuition dictates that sport governing bodies should not erect any barrier to disabled people wanting to compete with able bodied people. Certainly for those that fight for equality of all persons this would seem correct. Just because a person has a disability, that shouldn’t rule them out of being allowed to compete against the very best able bodied athletes. However, some argue this misses the point. No one denies that disabled people are free to compete with able bodied people, what is contentious is the use of technology as an aid. The question seems to revolve around whether the technology required to compete in the sport is advantageous; for example, whether the speed wheelchair or prosthetic limb is faster than an able bodied runner. Contemporary J shaped blades that act as prosthetic limbs for runners (ones used by Oscar Pistorius, with the unfortunate name “Cheetah”) have been analysed multiple times, with no conclusive result, though most believe they provide no advantage at the moment. If more are to follow Oscar Pistorius in competing with able bodied athletes, the perception of disability could change dramatically.


While technology may not be currently advantageous, it cannot be held in check forever. In the modern world it is practically a maxim that technology will improve vastly in short periods of time. When aids for disabled athletes and prosthetic limbs reach such a point where disabled athletes are regularly winning medals – whether through their own hard work or due to the technology – regulations on technological aids will follow.

Given the everyday advantages gained from new innovations in sport, regulations on technological advance could stunt the flow of new products on the everyday market. On top of this, while disability might be seen in a new light should disabled people compete alongside able bodied people, conversely it might be seen in a new light if disabled people were to compete separately and go faster and longer. In other words the accepted norms of disability could be altered.


What do you guys think? Should disabled athletes with technology aids be included as an obvious step to equality? Or should there be separate races, and technology left unrestrained?

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Tricky.  The principle of sporting competition is that competitors taking part do so "on a level playing field" i.e. that none has an unfair advantage over the others.  That's why, in most sports, women and men do not compete against one another.  It's also, of course, why performance enhancing drugs are forbidden.  In some sports, technological advances have, after consideration, been banned for similar reasons.  I'm thinking of the long putters in golf and something makes me think there was something about competition swimwear, as well.

My gut feeling with the blades is that it will come to "feel" more appropriate for blade wearing runners to compete against one another but not against non-blade users.  If Oscar Pistorius had won his event at the Olympics, there would have been those who would have been convinced that his blades won it for him and how could it possibly be proved otherwise? 

Yes, there are many instances of technology having to be curbed to prevent an unfair advantage in different sports. I also agree that if/when a disabled athlete with assistive technology wins a gold medal, there will be those that cast a shadow over the achievement.

However, it is also difficult to reconcile our desire for equality with separating the sports.

Either way, sport has the potential to change norms. Should the sports be separated, and para-sports end up faster, then perceptions of disabled people could change dramatically. Conversely, should the sports merge, and a disabled athlete win gold, then norms could be shaken up (despite potential detractors).


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