Monday, January 14, 2008

Should He Be Allowed to Run?

Oscar Pistorius wants to run in the Olympics, but even if he proves fast enough, the IAAF won’t let him:

Paralympic 400m star Oscar Pistorius has failed in his bid to compete at this year's Olympic Games in Beijing.

The IAAF, athletics' governing body, ruled his prosthetic limbs give him an advantage over able-bodied opponents and contravene rules on technical aids.

A scientific study revealed that Pistorius, nicknamed "Blade Runner", used 25% less energy than able-bodied runners to run at the same speed.

Mr. Pistorious has been an amputee since infancy, and has been a dominant runner in Paralympic competitions for disabled runners at 400 meters. But the wrong way to react to this story is to treat the IAAF, track’s governing body, as engaging in “discrimination,” or to suppose that Mr. Pistorius, for all his compelling and remarkable achievements, has any kind of “right” to run in the Games.

The modern Games are ultimately valuable, the silly post-nationalist dreams of their founders and the fanatic nationalism of some national Olympic committees notwithstanding, because of what they do for fans. What do fans want? I think a useful model is to suppose that they want to know who the world’s best athletes in various events are, and the Games and/or world championships settle that question. What does “best” mean? Primarily who is the best-endowed by genetics, and who can best enhance this endowment with difficult work – training, discipline and the like.

When we watch the 400m event, we want to know who the fastest runner in the world is. We do not want him mechanically enhanced in any way. It is not uninteresting or even without some inspirational value to test whether Mr. Pistorius could run as fast as the world’s fastest non-disabled runners (apparently at the moment he is not quite there yet), but that is a separate competition. His entry would be more in the manner of a tennis player who wins competitions despite inferior talent and/or training, strictly through the use of a new, ultra-powerful racket. It is no objection to say that Mr. Pistorious surely trains hard, even harder perhaps than a non-disabled athlete, because of his handicaps. Undoubtedly he does train extremely hard, but his mechanical assistance simply gives him an unknowable advantage over the other runners, and thus his inclusion in the contest makes the race itself less compelling.

Thinking about athletic contests this way gives some insight as to why some ways to enhance performance – rigorous diet and training – are allowed by sports governing bodies, and some – such technological aids as ultra-powerful golf clubs or tennis rackets, or performance-enhancing drugs – are not. The former are admired by fans, who want to evaluate discipline in conjunction with natural gifts. We admire the supremely talented athlete, as well as the one who makes it to the highest levels without as much in the way of talent but with much more in the way of hard work. The latter category of aids provides no signal of discipline, and allows someone of lesser talent to improve his ranking without resort to sacrifice, other things equal. It is simply not as appealing to watch a sporting contest when one cannot tell whether the winner was the winner because of some competition of talent and discipline, or because of some assistance he got that does not reflect these things. Thus it ever was (no sooner did commercial athletic contests, especially swimming, begin in the late 1800s than people began to cheat with medicines, and efforts to detect this cheating quickly followed), and thus it ever shall be.



Post a Comment

<< Home