The Olympic Face of “Dis”ability


Here is a man who turned the world of ability and disability on its head last week as he represented South Africa at the Olympic Games.  Born without fibulae, Oscar Pistorius, now 25 years of age, underwent below-knee amputations of both legs when he was 11 months old.  This month, we saw this man advance at the Games through the semi-finals in the men’s 400 meter race and the 4×400-meter relay, and compete in the finals.

Pistorius runs on carbon-fiber devices called Cheetahs.  And therein lies the rub.

For five years, Oscar Pistorius pushed back against scientific and legal debates about whether or not the prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage over sprinters without prostheses.  In January 2008, the governing body of track and field ruled him ineligible to compete, saying that the prosthetic devices gave Pistorius an advantage, similar to wheels and springs which are banned.  But in May 2008, a higher body ruled that the prosthetic legs gave Pistorius no real advantage.  It was too late for him to compete in the Beijing Olympics, but the London Games were on the horizon.  And in London, compete he did.

But, as The New York Times stated in its August 5, 2012 feature in the sports section, “Still, some resistance remains.”  In a study published in The Journal of Applied Physiology in 2009, researchers concluded that Pistorius could take his strides “more rapidly and with more power” than a sprinter on “biological legs”.  A previous Olympic champion runner, Michael Johnson, is quoted in The Times article as saying, “Because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics, it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors.”

Meanwhile, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami, who helped Pistorius gain the right to compete, has stated, “His ability to compete is a testament to what a great athlete he is, not because of any technological advantage.  Literally, he has a disadvantage throughout much of the race, but he’s been able to overcome it.”   He explained further that, while calf muscles in runners generate about 250 percent energy return with each strike of the track, Pistorius’ carbon-fiber blades generate only 80 percent return.  Because Pistorius has no feet or calves, he must generate his power with his hips, working harder than able-bodied athletes who use their ankles, calves and hips.

I think this is the only time in my life that I have heard a “disability” described as an advantage (and unfair!).  The juxtaposition of disability and advantage sounds like an oxymoron in a culture where disability is basically defined as undesirable.  Part of me understands the quandary embedded in the case of Oscar Pistorius — a quandary described by The Times as “where to draw the line between fair play and the right to compete.”  But the rest of me wants to sort of cheer at the singular portrayal of a person with a disability as having an advantage.  Such a portrayal is perhaps especially remarkable in the rarefied world of the Olympics or, for that matter, sports in general.  The Olympics and the sports world seem to seek mightily to advance the western ideal of the body beautiful.  And, as is probably obvious, the idealized body beautiful is one of the social forces that creates stigmatization and devaluing associated with physical disability.   The concept of a physical disability as a possible advantage rather than a disadvantage in Olympic competition is an amazing departure from all this cultural baggage.

As stated in The Times article, “Competing on carbon-fiber devices called Cheetahs, [Pistorius] began to blur the distinction between what is considered able and disabled.”  Blurring the distinction between able and disabled is also one way to conceptualize our occupational therapy, right?  In our work with clients to regain lost abilities, to learn and hone new abilities, to be able to participate in the social milieus of their lives, to carry out the rhythms of their everyday occupational routines — occupational therapists are helping to blur the lines between abled and disabled.  Or, as proposed in Chapter 7 of my book, we are positioned like a bridge, spanning and linking medical health with everyday life.  We work to bridge the great divide and to blur the lines between ability and disability that exist in our cultures all over the world.

One final point of interest here is evidence that writers struggle as they try to come up with an acceptable vocabulary that distinguishes between, in Pistorius’ case, runners who wear prostheses and those who don’t.  The terms I have seen used are:  natural legs; biological legs; biological feet; intact runners.  Hmmm.  Let’s keep working to blur those lines.

Frank, G. (2000).  Venus on wheels.Two decades of dialogue on disability, biography, and being female in America.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Grabowski, A.M., & Herr, H.M. (May 7, 2009).  Leg exoskeleton reduces the metabolic cost of human hopping.  doi.10.1152/japplphysiol.91609.2008.

Longman, J.  Pictorius advances to the semifinals.  New York Times, August 5, 2012.

Moritz, C.T. (2009).  Editorial:  A spring in your step:  Some is good, more is not always better.  Journal of Applied Physiology107 (3), 643-644.

Shuttleworth, R.P., & Kasnitz, D. (2004).  Stigma, community, ethnography:  Joan Ablon’s contribution to the anthropology of impairment-disability.  Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 18, 139-161.

2 thoughts on “The Olympic Face of “Dis”ability

  1. Well Done Betty! Here is an interesting article that bridges this blog posting with your previous one.

    I have been following Pistorius since I met him in LA at Nextfest in 2007.

    I brought this article into my kinesiology class to explain why it was important to be able to apply what they learned in Kines to prosthetics and orthotics and occupation.


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