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Paralympics leave us inspired and humbled yet uncertain


Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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The playing field for disabled athletes is, inevitably, never level.

OSCAR Pistorius represented all that was good and remarkable about the Paralympics, which drew to a close in London yesterday, but, perversely, also why we have so much trouble agreeing on a place for them in the grand scheme of sporting things.

Pistorius, a South African, was born without fibulas, and with other defects, and had both legs amputated in infancy, but refused from the start to regard himself as handicapped; he has never parked in disabled spaces, for instance. He played many sports, including water polo and rugby, and excelled at athletics.

In his cussed way, he fought and eventually won a protracted battle to compete in the Olympic Games proper last month. He made the semi-finals of the 400 metres, and the final of the 4x100 metres relay, and was one of the stories of those Games.

But his appearance in those Games, though gratifying as a tale of the triumph of indomitable spirit, did not resolve the Pistorius conundrum, also the conundrum at the heart of Paralympic sport. Do his high-tech prosthetics merely restore his natural ability, as he claims, or do they confer on him a bionic advantage?

Some say they lengthen Pistorius' stride unnaturally, provide bounce from the track and do not tire as natural legs do over a race. Others say Pistorius' lack of feeling means that he is slow out of the blocks, imprecise in his technique and at a pronounced disadvantage in wind and rain. No one has an irrefutable answer.

Competing in the Paralympics last week, Pistorius, previously unbeaten in his life at 200 metres, was mowed down in the final by Brazilian Alan Oliveira. Pistorius fumed, claiming Oliveira's prosthetics were longer than his, so lengthening his stride unfairly. The proof was apparent, he said: Oliveira was taller than when they had last met. ''We are not racing a fair race here,'' he said.

It was an intemperate outburst, for which Pistorius later apologised, but more damage already had been done than perhaps even he realised. Tacitly, Pistorius had admitted the possibility that, in at least some para-sports, the prosthetics could make a vital difference.

It means that as spectators and viewers, even as we admire the athletes immensely, we cannot always be sure about the contest we are watching.

Of course, this is arguably true of the able-bodied Olympics, in which athletes might be augmented legally (higher-tech running shoes or swimsuits than the competitor in the next lane) or by drugs, the ineradicable scourge.

Diverting for a moment, drugs or technology, abled or disabled, money is really the ultimate arbiter.

But the Paralympics depend for their appeal on an even more noble ideal than the Olympics proper; namely, that these competitors are elevating themselves not out of the ruck of mankind, but from far beneath it. In an odd way, it imposes an even purer obligation. Remember the outrage in 2000 when a supposedly intellectually disadvantaged Spanish basketball team at the Paralympics was exposed as fraudulent?

The fact is that there is almost no common point of reference for Olympics and Paralympics, no equivalence. Sometimes, Paralympians move faster even than orthodox Olympians: wheelchair racers, for instance (and some wheelchairs are technologically more advanced than others).

Only one yardstick applies, and it is necessarily crude. At the Olympics, to the extent that we can convince ourselves of it, we are watching the best. At the Paralympics, we are watching the best within confines. At the Olympics, we think we know what we're watching. At the Paralympics, even as we marvel, we're not sure.

This ambiguity is underscored by nomenclature so obtuse as to be useless. This is necessarily so; disabilities come in a wide range. The playing field never is level. In Sydney, one defending champion had to change sports; there was no one else in his previous category. Pistorius was beaten in the T44 category, whatever that is.

The ABC, which was widely praised for its commitment to coverage of the Paralympics, reported daily that Australia was winning, but only rarely expanded upon what Australia was winning at.

In this vagueness I suspect two forces. One is that Australia cared only for the fact of the victories, not the detail, especially after the disappointments of the Olympic Games proper. The other is that to dwell too much on the disabilities, day after day, would run the risk of establishing the Paralympics in public consciousness, however inadvertently, as a freak show.

Doubtlessly, some will have pegged me by now as a philistine. The trouble with writing a critique of the Paralympics is that there is precious little middle ground: either you are an unconditional fan, or you are unforgivably contemptuous. In fact, in 2000 I went to three days of Sydney's Paralympics. I expected a freak show, but came away thrilled, humbled and inspired by the brilliance. I still am.

The problem with the clamour for equal coverage of the Paralympics is that implicit in it is a call for what Paralympians themselves least want: special consideration. Their Olympics are in their own right a worthy international event, replete with astonishing stories of the triumph of the human spirit. They deserve to be told and celebrated, and many have been. They do not need to be patronised.

Greg Baum is an Age associate editor

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