Why are some Paralympians still placed at an unfair disadvantage?
With the continuous advancements in sport prosthetic technology that has catapulted disabled athletes into an era of revolutionary gains, there is a danger of leaving behind a whole other group of competitors: disabled athletes who do not rely on these devices.
Artificial body parts, which are increasingly refined, have an important role in empowering disability in sports, enabling top athletes to not only participate in their chosen sport but to also excel in international competitions such as the Paralympic Games. However, precisely within the context of the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, there manifests a double standard with respect to disabled athletes without prosthetics, who suffer unfair discrimination. This clearly contradicts the purpose and nature of the Games, and it certainly plays against the inclusive nature of empowerment. For example, let us consider the case of athletics.
“Recent findings indicate that the use of prosthetic device(s) may provide a performance advantage in Track Events”. This is what is stated in the new Rules and Regulations 2018-2019 by World Para Athletics, which has accordingly recognised a new category for those athletes who have a disability below the knee but who do not use prosthetics. Unfortunately, this remains a written rule that does not translate to anything concrete: these athletes still have to compete alongside prosthetics users, whilst remaining the only official category excluded from the Athletics schedule of Tokyo 2020. This means that if they want to compete at the Paralympics, they will have to do so within the same category as prosthetics users.
Effectively, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) demonstrates a rather inconsistent stance: as soon as a performance advantage is acknowledged for prosthetics users, it is incoherent and wrong to let them compete with others. As a result of this contradiction, many athletes will certainly struggle to even qualify for their categories. Such a performance advantage undoubtedly makes the entry requirements less attainable for them, unfairly raising the standards.
Recently, the European Commission, an official supporter of the Paralympics and a financial backer of the European Paralympic Committee, has started using its influential position to tackle this. Specifically, Article 26 of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights by the EU supports the case against such discrimination: “The Union recognises and respects the right of persons with disabilities to bene t from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community”.
Unfortunately, this has not been used to its full potential. The European Commission has merely pointed to national judicial appeals for people who suffer from the discrimination of such rules, therefore arguably missing an opportunity to effectively intervene itself: by delegating the job to slower and less influential powers, the battle against injustice is compromised. This only generates further inequality, as legal action will effectively require that affected citizens pay high prices for their fundamental rights to be recognised.
Despite the significant expenses required to start the legal process, many athletes have indeed united and are now running a race against time: there is a serious lack of any form of immediate response from the IAAF. This harms the opportunities of many whose hard, daily training regimes could devalued by a unilateral decision taken lightly.
The harsh discrimination and indifference of the IAAF is not only a serious injustice but also, and more importantly, a deep contradiction of the nature of the Paralympic Games in multiple ways. Historically, there is no such preferential treatment in the history of the Games. Both prosthetics users and disabled athletes without prosthetic devices are counted as forerunners of the Paralympics. The first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics, German American gymnast George Eyser, had a wooden prosthesis for a left leg; the second, Hungarian water polo player and freestyle swimmer Olivér Halassy, did not make use of a prosthesis for his lost left foot; Hungarian shooter Károly Takács was the third physically disabled athlete to compete, using his left hand instead of relying on a prosthetic device for his right one. Hence, there is no preferential component in the history of the Games that justifies such a double standard.
We can also identify contradictions on a conceptual level. According to what is stated in the Charter of the International Paralympic Committee, there is a clear rejection of all forms of discrimination, including, crucially, on the basis of disability. The mission of the Paralympics is “to promote Paralympic sport without discrimination for political, religious, economic, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or race reasons”, so how is it acceptable that such favouritism is allowed, especially within the context of these Games?
The third contradictory element is ideological. The empowering role played by sports prosthetics dictates a rejection of the current silence of the IAAF. The process of empowerment requires a commitment to create equal opportunities and representation for marginalised groups of people, and to systematically thwart any attempt of discrimination.The equality principle is fundamental. Crucially, this means that empowering one group of marginalised people cannot be achieved at the expense of leaving another behind.An absurd analogy to this kind of position would be to allow feminism to be applied only to rich white women. It should be straightforward that this idea of feminism is to be abhorred.
The further absurdity is that the very guarantors of the rights of disabled people, like the EU, consider an acceptable solution to be that discriminated individuals can initiate legal action after having recognised the injustice. A better solution would see the guarantor itself proceed to the legal action. With important powers including both its juridical apparatus – the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice – and the enormous impact on the European Paralympic Committee, which itself is part of the International Paralympic Committee, the EU could make a meaningful contribution. It is inconceivable that it is required of individual citizens whose human rights are violated to be responsible for the recognition of those rights. The lack of a serious commitment from above is an accessory to the indifference of the IAAF with regards to this group of athletes left behind.
The case of athletics is just one of many that demonstrate the presence of double standards with regards to disabled people in the context of sport. The enormous achievements of technological advancements in sports prosthetics, in furthering the empowerment of physically disabled competitors, are sabotaged by this unfairness. The interesting aspect is that, in this case, there is no lack of appreciation of the differences within the realm of disability. Instead, there is a clear recognition of the diversity. The problem simply lies in the actualisation of the measures to guarantee equal opportunities in light of it. It is perhaps the relative simplicity of the step required to end the injustice that makes this situation all the more frustrating.
This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.