Second place Pistorius rages at unfair advantage
In one of the Paralympics’ biggest upsets, record-breaker Oscar Pistorius was beaten in the men’s 200m. He claims his rival’s prosthetics gave an unfair advantage. Are his criticisms fair?
When the finalists of the men’s T43/44 200m entered the Olympic stadium on Sunday, all eyes were on one man. Oscar Pistorius – the undisputed ‘fastest man on no legs’ – was the king of the track, and there seemed little doubt he would win.
Speeding from the blocks, Pistorius was, as predicted, in a league of his own. But when he reached the final straight, one rival broke ahead. With a huge burst of speed, Brazil’s Alan Oliveira overtook Pistorius – and narrowly beat the champion to the finish line.
The shock result is perhaps the biggest upset of the Paralympics so far – and Pistorius is not happy. He claims Oliveira’s prosthetic legs were too long, giving him an unfair advantage. Although the blades are legal under Paralympic rules, Pistorius insisted his rival did not deserve gold. ‘We’re not racing in a fair race here,’ he said.
Controversy over hi-tech prosthetics is nothing new to the South African. Since first competing against non-disabled athletes in 2007, he has battled accusations that his own man-made running blades – called Cheetahs – are an improvement on flesh and bone.
In sport, such ‘unfair advantages’ can come in many forms. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an astonishing 135 new world records were set in swimming alone. The reason for the spike? Hi-tech streamlined swimsuits. They improved performances so dramatically they were deemed unfair, and eventually banned.
The biggest threat to fair play, however, is doping. For decades, athletes have improved performance using a huge range of substances – from strength-building steroids to EPO, which increases oxygen supply. This year, every Olympic medal winner was tested for these kind of drugs.
Policing the cheats, however, is tricky. Cycling hero Lance Armstrong, for example, has never failed a drugs test – but evidence that he did dope means he is set to be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. And as technology improves, new routes to an athletic edge emerge – from undetectable drugs to high-tech trainers and extra long prosthetic limbs.
A fine line
But when do these become unjust? Most athletes have a natural genetic advantage; those in rich countries benefit from superior facilities. The majority take dietary supplements. It is stupid, some say, that these advantages are allowed while drugs and special swimsuits are not. Sport would do better to be rid of this hypocrisy and let athletes boost their performance in any way they wish.
Others disagree. Sport, they say, is about physical talent and hard work. That should be the basis of an athlete’s success – not risky drugs or superhuman technology. Working to create a level playing field is about staying true to the spirit of sport.
- Would the Olympics and Paralympics be better if athletes could improve their performance however they wished?
- Is there such a thing as a completely fair competition in sport?
- Design a poster for the ‘super Olympics’ – in which any technological enhancement or drug-based athletic boost is allowed.
- Many athletes drink sports drinks or take diet supplements to improve their energy levels and performance. Make the case that these ‘performance enhancing’, but currently legal, substances should be banned.
Some People Say...
“Sport is never fair.”
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Q & A
- So did any London 2012 athletes actually dope?
- Several athletes were found guilty of doping, and suspended – but these only represented a handful of those taking part in the Games, and one quarter were tested. However, that didn’t stop allegations. When 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen smashed the world record in the 400m medley – beating US legend Ryan Lochte’s time for the final 50m – many commentators expressed disbelief. Some even outrightly accused her of doping – yet her tests were all negative.
- How did she achieve such a remarkable time?
- Because teenagers are still growing and developing, it is actually common for them to suddenly knock seconds off their times. On the other hand, it is possible that Ye could have cheated – by taking a new, and undetectable, drug.
- Each Paralympic athlete is categorised according to their level of disability, to ensure a fair competition for everyone involved. Often, these categories are complex: athletes with very different disabilities might compete against each other, because they are restricted to a comparable degree. Pistorius and Oliveira’s race, however, followed a relatively straightforward stratification: T stands for track athletics, while 43 and 44 indicates amputee athletes are competing.
- Legal under Paralympic rules
- The length of blades an athlete is allowed is calculated according to his or her weight, height and dynamics – and according to these rules, Oliveira’s blades are legal. Pistorius was not criticising his competitor so much as the rules themselves – which, he says, are lax and badly thought out. He claims they have also benefited another competitor, Blake Leeper, who allegedly improved his times dramatically after switching to longer blades.
- Evidence that he did dope
- Last month, Lance Armstrong announced that he would no longer fight allegations that he had been doping. For years, the cycling champion has denied that he took illegal drugs; he still does, yet many took his ‘defeat’ as an admission of guilt. The case against him consists largely of anecdotal evidence from teammates and friends, who claim doping was widespread within Armstrong’s Tour de France team.