The future of sport arrived on Friday with the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport to allow South Africa's premier runner, double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, to compete in the 400-meter Olympic sprints and relays this summer.
Many folks would call Pistorius disabled, simply because he does not have lower legs and feet. He does use metal carbon-fiber blades on the track as substitutes, though, and the generally conservative International Association of Athletics Federations had ruled him ineligible because his "Cheetah Flex Foot" blades offered him an advantage. In fact, tests conducted by a team led by MIT professor Hugh M. Herr demonstrated convincingly that he does not gain any advantage over able-bodied runners. The CAS panel has now unanimously ruled that it "was not persuaded that there was sufficient evidence of any metabolic advantage in favor of a double-amputee" and "that the IAAF did not prove that the biomechanical effects of using this particular prosthetic device gives Oscar Pistorius an advantage over other athletes not using the device."
Make no mistake: this is a tremendous civil and human rights victory. Oscar Pistorius - the "fastest man on no legs" -- is a splendid athlete who will now be able compete in Beijing.
Ever since Casey Martin's golf cart became a national cause célèbre among golfers, the world of sports has had to face the issue of "the other." Martin, as you will recall, suffered from a degenerative leg condition that made it physically impossible for him to walk the entire golf course. When the PGA refused to allow him to use his cart to "get to the game," Martin brought suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act and eventually prevailed in the Supreme Court. The essence of the game of golf, according to Justice Stevens, was "shot-making," not walking. The PGA had allowed the use of carts for the first two rounds of Q School, but not for the third round, thus effectively barring access to Martin who had paid for the opportunity to qualify through Q School. The ADA - the prevailing national law -- required that an entity like the PGA make a "reasonable accommodation," and Martin prevailed.
Pistorius's case is the next in line. There was little evidence that Martin's cart gave him any advantage on the links (most golfers walk the course even if allowed to ride to deal with the stress of tournament play), but the IAAF was sure Pistorius's Cheetahs were an advantage, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has spoken clearly now on the issue and overruled the IAAF.
I think the Martin and Pistorius cases tell us a great deal about ourselves and our collective image of the ideal athlete. We are not that comfortable with disabled persons in general, and that is only enhanced in sport. Our model athlete mirrors Athenian perfection, but sports are not a beauty contest. They are a competition.
We are sure to face additional controversies as athletes with and without disabilities make use of new technologies to improve their performances. Steroids, laser surgery and Tommy John shoulder reconstructions will seem so old-fashioned in the not too distant future. I, for one, will root for Pistorius to be the Jack Johnson of this era. Forget your stereotypes, because the future of sport has begun.