Running Outside of His Lane

By Kenny Fries
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African sprinter who calls himself "the fastest man on no legs," made his 400-meter debut racing against nondisabled runners two weeks ago in Sheffield, England. Unfortunately, the much-anticipated race was anticlimactic. Pistorius was disqualified for running outside of his lane.

This technical misstep only postpones the inevitable.

By contesting the notion that a disabled runner cannot, and should not, compete with nondisabled runners, Pistorius has challenged preconceived ideas not only of sport but of what it means to be human.

Since Pistorius petitioned to compete with nondisabled runners, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field's global governing body, has prohibited the use of technological aids such as springs and wheels. The jury is still out on whether Pistorius, who runs on two fiberglass prosthetic legs, will be allowed to compete as part of South Africa's team in the 2008 Olympics.

What does it mean to say, as an IAAF spokesman did, that Pistorius's racing on prosthetic legs "goes against all orthodoxy of 400-meter running"? Who decides that wearing sneakers goes against the orthodoxy of, say, running the 400 meters barefoot?

There are no well-known scientific studies on the effects that prosthetics have on running, and many of those who have engaged in this debate are carrying stereotypes of disabled bodies. "The rule book says a foot has to be in contact with the starting block," Leon Fleiser, a general manager of the South African Olympic Committee, told the New York Times in May. "What is the definition of a foot? Is a prosthetic device a foot, or is it an actual foot?"

Largely missing from the discussion -- besides scientific findings, though Pistorius has consented to having his prosthetics studied -- is the realization that movement itself is an adaptation to a particular environment and terrain.

Like Pistorius, I was born with fibulae missing in both of my legs. I, however, did not have my legs amputated. After five early-childhood surgeries, I learned to walk in the way best adapted to my body. I have seen over and over that in certain situations my five-foot-tall body has an advantage over others. For example, with the shape of my specially molded orthopedic shoes, I had an easier time climbing Beehive Mountain in Acadia National Park than my 6-foot-1, able-bodied hiking companion did.

Of course, in other situations, my body is at a disadvantage. In certain conditions, such as rain, Pistorius's legs would also be at a disadvantage.

But it's important to focus on the big picture. Pistorius's challenge underscores that it is society that defines the limits of the body and that these limits are always shifting.

Robert Gailey, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami School of Medicine who has studied amputee runners, questioned the IAAF's purpose for banning technological aids. "Are they looking at not having an unfair advantage?" he asked, according to the New York Times. "Or are they discriminating because of the purity of the Olympics, because they don't want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man for fear that if the person who doesn't have the perfect body wins, what does that say about the image of man?"

Without challenges such as Pistorius's, how will we know whether nondisabled racers are using a less efficient gait? Men such as Oscar Pistorius share with society opportunities to make advances that can help all of us.

And for once, a disabled man is helping to set the limits of how society defines the nondisabled.

Kenny Fries is the author of "The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory." He teaches in the creative writing program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company