Oscar Pistorius and ‘The Dignity of Risk’

Oscar Pistorius Disabled AthletesPublished originally in The Nation

Call these Olympics “a tale of two Blade Runners.” Blade Runner was of course the classic 1982 Ridley Scott film about a dystopic future in the Los Angeles of 2019. Twenty twelve Olympic London is giving Mr. Scott’s vision a run for it’s money. Away from the high-def cameras and soft panning shots of Big Ben at dusk is a city that’s making Blade Runner look quaint. Not even the fevered minds of Scott and author Philip K. Dick imagined surveillance drones, gunships and surface-to-air missiles in residential neighborhoods.

But there is another Blade Runner on the scene at these games and it would be terribly myopic to disregard its importance. This would be the man known as “the Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius. The 400-meter track star from South Africa made the Olympic semifinals before being knocked out of competition on Sunday night. But Pistorius already made history by becoming the first double amputee to compete at the Olympic Games. His journey to these semi-finals was far more arduous than the race itself.

Pistorius was born without fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee before his first birthday. The 25-year-old used prosthetics from the time he could walk and was raised to see “putting them on” as no different than his older brother Carl’s putting on his shoes. He was a dominant Paralympic runner and qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Enter the IAAF, the world governing body for track and field. They ruled, stunningly, that prosthetic legs constituted a “competitive advantage” for Pistorius. This is only logical to someone who thinksThe Six Million Dollar Man was a documentary. Pistorius is not “bionic.” His world-class speed is in fact particularly remarkable given that his carbon fiber prosthetics requires him to start from a vertical position that always makes him the slowest off the blocks and most prone to be affected by wind resistance.

Eventually the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the IAAF’s decision. Upon hearing their ruling, Pistorius made clear that this was more than just his own fight, saying, ;“My focus throughout this appeal has been to ensure that disabled athletes be given the chance to compete and compete fairly with able-bodied athletes.”

“The Blade Runner” then further shocked the world by making last night’s semi-finals. Particularly remarkable is that even though the IAAF set a tone that the track and field community should be suspicious and resentful of Pistorius, the other athletes saw his accomplishment as something to celebrate. The winner of the semi-final race, Kirani James of Grenada, didn’t rejoice in his own victory in the immediate aftermath but made a bee-line for Pistorius, who came in last. They then, in full view of the world, exchanged those paper-sized identification placards known as racing bibs, that are pinned to the front of their outfits. It was the ultimate show of camaraderie and respect

As James told reporters, “My hat’s off to him, just coming out here and competing. I just see him as another athlete, another competitor. What’s more important is I see him as another person. He’s someone I admire and respect.”

He is certainly worthy of that admiration and his larger importance cannot be overstated. Julie Morley, the director of community services at the UK organization Disability Trust, said to the Telegraph,

“It is tremendously helpful for people with physical disability who struggle with the everyday things normal people take for granted. It gives them something to aspire to, to say ‘if he can do it I can’. But just as important is the perception of able bodied people. People think ‘oh they can’t do that physically disabled people need to be protected,’ but sometimes they don’t. I think [Pistorius] has made that acceptable. He has opened people to the dignity of risk, giving them that, rather than saying ‘they can’t do that’.”

I would also challenge even the most-hardened Olympic-cynic to look at the following and not be moved.

“The whole experience is mind-blowing,” Pistorius said afterward. “My aim was to make the semifinal. It’s a dream come true.”

It’s also not over. In addition to the Paralympics, Pistorius will compete in the 4x400m relay. As he says, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”

dave zirinIn a 2012 games so ruthlessly defined by an out of control security and surveillance culture outside the arena, we should take the inspiration of Oscar Pistorious to heart. The world does not have to be what it currently is and the future is not written. We would all do well to take the lead of Oscar Pistorius and welcome into our lives “the dignity of risk.”

Dave Zirin
The Edge of Sports

Republished with permission.

Posted: Sunday, 12 August 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on August 12, 2012
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About Dave Zirin

Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World”, Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine. He is their first sports writer in 150 years of existence. Winner of Sport in Society and Northeastern University School of Journalism's 2011 'Excellence in Sports Journalism' Award, Zirin is also the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio. He has been called “the best sportswriter in the United States,” by Robert Lipsyte. Dave Zirin is, in addition, a columnist for SLAM Magazine and the Progressive.