Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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The idiocies around Oscar Pistorius



This text was written in 2012 but only published in 2023. It has not been updated to reflect later developments, notably Pistorius’ murder conviction and jail time. The murder issues are irrelevant to this text (which deals with idiocies illustrated by the former debate around Pistorius as an athlete—not Pistorius in general), while more sport-related issues that might be of relevance would require considerable additional research to refresh my memory.

I note, however, that Pistorius appears to have complained about another “para” athlete having an unfair advantage over him, based on better “blades”. I do not remember enough of the details to tell whether this reflected hypocrisy or a complaint about a formal rule violation; however, it does give a strong further indication of how “blades” distort the playing field—and that Pistorius was, himself, aware of this. Also note the more recent controversy over various types of super-shoes and how they might affect various results in various running events.

Similar topics, most notably the much more recent issue of men-who-want-to-be-women competing against women, have been discussed in not yet imported texts from my Wordpress days. (Links will follow post-import.) Note how often similar arguments apply, e.g. in that male competitors could ruin women’s sports and that a “Social justice!” or “Equal rights!” angle is entirely misplaced and shows a complete lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

Looking at some results from the ongoing 2012 Olympics, I notice with horror the name Oscar Pistorius among the heat qualifiers in the men’s 400 meter. Worse, reading up on Wikipedia, I see that he actually won a relay medal in the 2011 World Championships.

Why horror? Because his presence is a lethal threat to competitive sports and a proof of human stupidity.

Pistorius is a man who would once have been considered a cripple, for whom even walking at an ordinary pace would be a success: He has no lower legs and has to use prostheses.

This is also the full extent of what the emotional and irrational see: A severely handicapped man who has overcome a tremendous disadvantage to earn a well-deserved spot in the Olympics—a modern day Wilma Rudolph or Ralph Ewry.

The truth is very, very different: His “blades” almost certainly give him a significant advantage over the rest of the field and on his own two feet, he would not be competitive. Even, however, if he, right here and now, did not have an advantage, further advances would eventually give him (or someone else) such an advantage.


For discussions of these advantages and the misperceptions around them, I refer to two public statements by scientists Matthew W. Bundle and Peter G. Weyand, who have investigated the matter in depth. (Cf. e.g. [1]e.) Notably, they claim an advantage as high as 11.9 seconds (!) through the course of a 400-meter race—which moves Pistorius time from an Olympic heat qualifier among men to something competitive among female juniors in ... the hurdles. (However, even a difference a tenth as large would be very, very significant.)

Correspondingly, his being allowed to participate distorts the competition, robs a more deserving athlete of advancement to the next round, and possibly repeats this in future rounds—in an unlikely worst case scenario, he could screw up the medals. (Addendum: Fortunately, he did not advance further.)

Here it is very important to bear in mind that any reference to the rights of the disabled (or similar) is off the mark—the issue at hand is fair competition and the rights of the other athletes. His presence is not a triumph for equal rights—it is a disaster for the sport. This is not a Hallmark sob-story about an individual hero—it is the story of a cheater comparable to Ben Johnson.


The word “cheater” can be disputed on semantic grounds: The view could be taken that he is not formally a cheater, having been allowed to compete even being open about his prostheses, if not his advantage. (While Ben Johnson hid his illegal drug use and was banned when it became public.)

At the same time, however, he does have an unfair advantage—and an advantage that other athletes cannot even replicate without themselves having amputations. I also note that the IAAF has disallowed his participation, only to see this over-turned by a third party (CAS, a sports arbitration court).

Negative effects on the sport

In the short term, Pistorius robs more accomplished athletes of a fair opportunity.

This, however, is secondary to the potential long-term effects:

What if more athletes with performance enhancing prostheses enter competitions? In the end, we could see sports reduced to a matter of who is the best cyborg. Indeed, this scenario is so dire, that Pistorius should have been banned from competition when using his prostheses even if he had a disadvantage: If, arguendo, his prostheses did not bring an advantage, those of the future would—and it would just be a matter of time before the current situation arose.

We run the risk of seeing (competitive) sports turned into a farce and mockery or a mere display of technology, with the accomplishments of athletes of the past being laughed at by the ignorant. The scope of this potential problem can be seen by looking at the developments of swimming records using various high-tech swim suits a few years ago: If merely having a different suit can have that effect, what cannot be reached by making larger interventions?

Pistorius vs. other handicapped athletes

To better understand why Pistorius’ efforts must not be seen as a triumph for the disabled or his being allowed to compete as a matter of their rights, it pays to make some comparisons:

  1. Athletes arbitrarily banned from competition:

    Some years ago, I read a story about a female swimmer without arms (or only one arm?), who was unable to compete against two-armed swimmers for an idiotic reason—she was physically unable to complete a race in the prescribed, but non-central, manner of putting her hand(s) on the wall of the pool.

    This woman was stopped by an arbitrary rule: The alternate rule “touch with any body part” would have allowed her to compete without more than a very marginal effect on the sport and without giving her an advantage. Indeed, compared to the competition, she would have to swim up to an arm’s length further even on a one lap race.


    The pre-publication version included:

    (More so on a multi-lap race, where she would have to swim correspondingly longer each lap in order to turn legally.)

    This is likely wrong, if she were allowed to touch with any body part, including feet. (I would need to revisit the rules, long forgotten by 2023, and the exact approaches of swimmers to answer this in detail.) However, a “touch with any part of the upper body” would likely suffice to make the claim true. If in doubt, a rule change for everyone to allow turning with just feet contact would not change the sport in a fundamental manner. (Times might be faster overall, but the relative strength of individual swimmers would be unlikely to change much.)

    Further, without the motive power of her arm(s), she had a considerable disadvantage compared to the competition.

    Pistorius, in contrast, has an advantage and a rule that would stop him would not be arbitrary.


    Here, however, an interesting dilemma arises: What if there is some sport where a lack of arms or legs is, in and by it self, an advantage? (Possibly, a power lifter specializing in the bench press, whose lack of legs allow him to compete in a lower weight class than others with a similar upper body.) Here, I see no obviously fairer or better resolution.

  2. Paralympic competitors: Compete on more-or-less equal terms against those in a similar situation. (The grouping into categories of disability is not always perfect, hence the “more-or-less”.) The only complaint that a regular athlete could direct at them, is that they get more attention than their accomplishments would warrant, due to the lesser competition. However, the same complaint can be raised even when comparing different sports or the same sport in different countries among ordinary athletes—ultimately, this is just the way the world works. For instance, a Swedish sprinter might be interviewed on TV and receive a (small) sponsorship deal after winning the Swedish championships with a time of 10.30 seconds. The same runner in the U.S. would have been a nobody.

    Obviously, if Pistorius competed (only) in the Paralympics, I would have no objections whatsoever. Notably, any advantage that he has compared to ordinary athletes would be moot when he competes against his peers. Similarly, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with wheel-chair bound who have better times in mid- and long-distance races than ordinary athletes—as long as they do not insist on being included in the same races. Neither is there anything wrong with holding chess championships between computers (who, by now, are far superior to human players) as long as they have their own championships.

    More generally, if different groups simply have too different starting points or if the sport has too different a character to them, they are typically moved into separate categories: Humans do not race horses (except as a gimmick) and they certainly do not play tennis against horses. Women play in different competitions from men in almost (?) all sports. Juniors are often allowed to compete in senior competitions, but not the other way around.

  3. The aforementioned Wilma Rudolph and Ralph Ewry: Both suffered from polio, but grew to be Olympic champions in the 100 meters respectively the standing long/high/triple jump. Indeed, Ewry is one of the most successful Olympians of all times (but is rarely mentioned in such discussions, because his disciplines were later discontinued).

    Here we see a true triumph of hard training and great effort. It can be argued that polio, in a manner of speaking, helped the two: Without it, they would likely not have put such great effort into their training (originally, at least in Ewry’s case, directed at overcoming polio) and would almost certainly have focused less on muscle training (the benefits of which to athletic accomplishment were not clear in the way that they are today). However, any such “help” is entirely within the realms of the fair: They still had to put in the blood, sweet, and tears needed on their own—and any of their competitors could have replicated their efforts, given the same will and discipline. (And most such competitors would have started with the considerable advantage of not having polio...)

Pistorius vs. others with advantages

Similarly, it can help to compare Pistorius’ advantages with other types:

  1. In-born advantages, e.g. an unusually high proportion of “fast-twitch” muscle fiber or a greater body height: While it is unfair, on some level, that one athlete has such advantages, here we have a simple fact-of-life. We are all born different—and (at least modern) sports see this type of advantage as fair and a part of the game, while disallowing various artificial means of enhancement. Additionally, an advantage in one sport can be a disadvantage in another (e.g. in that the fast-twitch fibres of a sprinter will do him no good in the marathon or that a 7-foot basketball player would be unlikely to be a successful jockey).

    Even sports that use weight classes, e.g. boxing, do allow any other number of physical advantages—e.g. a greater reach.

    Further, weight-classes are only indirectly a restriction on in-born characteristics: There are no restrictions against, e.g., being too much taller than the opponent; however, someone taller will, all other factors equal, have less ability to build muscle while remaining in the same weight class.

    Further yet, the heavier boxer is not deemed a cheater—he is merely restricted in weight class.

    For the heavy-weights, even these constraints are lessened in that there is no upper limit and that competitors can easily be 50 pounds apart.

    In contrast, entering a boxing match with a knuckle-iron would lead to a disqualification and suspension (if found out). To replace an amputated hand with a ten-pound lead prosthesis would be unthinkable—even if it also leads to a slower hand movement and a reduction in stamina.

    When push-comes-shove, it would even be impossible to remove these advantages without giving up sports in their modern form or going down the road towards Vonnegut’s dystopian Harrison Bergeronw.


    The concept of handicapping those “too good”, as in that short story, is not unheard of in sports. However, off the top of my head, I can recall only three variations:

    Firstly, making it possible for those of differing ability to compete against each other on the lower levels of the sport, to increase the fun or to compensate for a low number of potential competitors. Golf is the paramount example; however, in tournaments on a serious level such handicapping does not take place.

    Secondly, evening the odds for purposes like gambling. Note various forms of handicapping in some types of horse racing.

    Thirdly, giving competitors from different “areas” a chance to measure their abilities in a manner not dominated by the area in a one-off manner, often more as a gimmick than a true competition. Examples include having a human with a head-start race a horse and having a male and a female tennis player face each other with different rules for e.g. serving. However, here the winner is usually determined by the size of the handicaps—not actual ability. (Finding a “fair” handicap is virtually impossible and, barring sheer luck, either the one will win because the handicap is, in some sense, too small or the other because it is too large.)

  2. Training can cause unfairness, on some level, through at least two mechanisms:

    Firstly, some simply have better opportunities to train, say through living off considerable own fortune (rather than working for a living) or through governmental support not available in other countries. (Indeed, many do not have the opportunity to do certain sports at all, due to lack of an ice rink, not being able to afford a boat, whatnot.)

    Secondly, having a better knowledge of training methods, a better trainer, whatnot, can give a considerable advantage.

    These mechanisms, too, have long been an accepted part of sports—the way the world is. Indeed, it can be argued that the once common “amateur’s only” rule considerably strengthened the first case. Further, in most cases these disadvantages can be overcome by sufficient dedication. Most of the remainder will simply force someone to chose another sport.

    In the case of different knowledge of training, everyone can read up on what is established knowledge—and the secrets of a particular trainer tend not to remain secret for that long.

    Of course, any attempt to remove differences in training and training opportunities would do more harm than good. In contrast, preventing Pistorius from competing with an advantage avoids much harm.

  3. Doping: While being quite similar to Pistorius’ advantage, it has been banned for several decades—and is seen as a severe threat to sports.

    Doping is an artificial performance enhancer for which the competition has no good way of compensating: The negative health effects of doping are rarely as large or as certain as those of a double amputation; however, they are still larger (or feared to be larger) than what is conscionable for an athlete to be forced to accept. (Which is the main reason why they are banned: If legal, the willingness to endanger one’s health with doping is more important than talent.)

    Doping does differ in an interesting way, however: Not all drugs used are directed (solely or primarily) at direct performance enhancement—but at allowing the athlete to train harder without breaking his body. (Notably, steroids do have legitimate medicinal uses to combat injuries, albeit more likely to be cortical than anabolic.)


    While doping (or, better, “use of illegal PEDs”) does pose a tricky issue, my 2023 take is less rejecting. The main issue is that the fight against it comes with too large a cost and, it self, brings an unconscionable burden to many athletes, including “whereabouts” declarations, breaches of privacy, and the risk of being suspended over e.g. an innocent mistake or through the actions of some third party. The sad truth is that doping might be the lesser evil by now—and, if not, eventually will be, should current trends continue. (TODO import and link Wordpress text(s).)

  4. High altitude can have a severe distorting effect on results in some athletics events, as most notably demonstrated by the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and other high altitude competitions in the lead up to the Olympics, and as seen again and again after 1968.

    I and many others believe that results (in such events) from high altitude should not be counted for record purposes, as they are artificially enhanced. Indeed, in my understanding, the reason that these results are not deemed invalid (as results in too much tail wind are) is an accident of history: The awareness of the benefits of high altitude only arose with the various competitions of 1968—and the powers that be did not wish to rescind the many new world records after the fact (including Beamon’s 8.90m long jump, which stood as the world record until 1991 and is still the second longest “legal” jump on official record). As a compromise, altitude results are given an incriminating “A” mark—but still count as fully valid. The effects of wind, in contrast, were obvious to all from the beginning—and the upper limit of 2 meter/second chosen as an estimate of the wind needed to make the advantage visible on the early stop-watches (having a precision of 1/5th of a second).

    High-altitude results differ positively from Pistorius’ blades on a central point, however: The results of all competitors are (on average) influenced by the same amount and in the same direction. The competition remains fair and only the comparison with other competitions becomes unfair. If someone had a device that could create a “high altitude” environment around just himself during a competition, then he would certainly not be allowed to use that device when competing.


    In contrast to altitude, differences in wind can cause notable unfairness even within the same competition, e.g. due to variations between two individual long jumps or different qualifying heats in the sprints. Unlike the hypothetical device above, however, these effects are randomly distributed and no-one has a systematic advantage (barring differences in e.g. body type that can have a minor influence on the effect of wind)—everyone has the same chance of receiving the benefit. Further, more wind is not automatically an advantage: Yes, a long jumper can potentially jump longer with more wind; however, at the same time the risk that his timing at the plank is off increases, which can result in a corresponding shortening of the measured length or a foul).

Addendum on other sob-stories

In the time since the original writing, I have encountered other sob-stories (and/or “human interest” stories, and/or “unfair treatment” stories, and/or whatnot stories) relating to sports, with a reaction of the dumb masses that always seem to go by unreasoned emotion, including e.g. whether the aforementioned men-who-want-to-be-women should be allowed to compete in women-only competitions. (This is a particularly good example, as the opponents seem to be almost as irrational and emotional as the proponents—to the point that they forego the actual factual arguments, which do favor the opposition, and stick to variations of e.g. “Evil men want to abolish women!!!!”.) To make matters worse, the same seems to apply outside of sports and to be systematically used by some, especially Leftist, groups.

An interesting family of examples relate to invalid wind readings (notably, through failing or obstructed wind gauges) and, maybe, other cases of “unknowns”: If someone makes a great performance with an invalid wind reading, the knee-jerk reaction seems to be that “Had the wind reading been valid, he would have [e.g.] set a record!”, while the likelier result is that the wind reading would have showed too much wind, the amount of wind being the explanation for the great performance. Counting invalid wind readings as if they were valid and showing legal wind would do far more harm than good.

Generally, outlandish performances should always be viewed with caution and, to count for e.g. record purposes, must not have been made under dubious circumstances (e.g. with malfunctioning measurement equipment or on tracks of unverified length). That someone, say, legitimately cuts two tenths of a second off a 100m PB might not be impossible. However, beyond special cases, it is exceptionally rare and the far more likely explanation is that something is amiss—a faulty wind reading, an undetected false start, drug cheating by a previously clean athlete, whatnot. (Such special cases include still growing teens and 400m runners who last ran a serious 100m ten years ago.)

It might well be that taking a hard line causes some unfairness. For instance, it might be that Phil Shinnick was robbed of a record in the long jump for almost 60 years, until a recent re-evaluation. However, is it not worse when a too generously granted record distorts the playing field for everyone else? (Which is also, cf. above, often the likelier explanation.) Consider e.g. Flo-Jo’s controversial 10.49 or even Beamon’s 8.90, both of which had issues with wind readings. (In addition to the unrelated issues with altitude and weather for Beamon.) If in doubt, is it more unfair that someone loses a record over a missing wind reading or that someone does so over a wind that was (presumably, correctly) measured to be just a tad over the legal limit? Carl Lewis once had a monster jump that went unmeasured because the front of his shoe extended minusculely beyond the limit for a legal take off, and which many believe exceeded 8.90. (It is, in fact, usually referred to as the “30 feet jump”. This might well be hyperbolic, but note that 30 feet is roughly 9.14 (!) meters.) Was he injured more or less than Shinnick by the decision not to measure and not to count the jump? Was it more or less fair? Perfect fairness is not possible, we have to do the best that we can, and this best involves having and following comparatively strict and consistent rules for e.g. what performances are record eligible.


Which is not to say that any set of rules is suitable, nor that stricter rules are automatically better. For instance, some have been denied a record because the competition at hand, while otherwise impeccable, did not have doping tests—while the athlete at hand was regularly tested throughout the year and there was no particular reason to believe that he would have tested positive. Such rules might well go too far.

Too lose rules would be harmful, however. For instance, if we abolished wind readings in events like the sprints, records would be more determined by wind than ability, and competitions might begin to build stadia for the purpose of ensuring maximal wind in the hope of holding the record. (Such behavior has been observed e.g. for marathons and ski flying—to the point of endangering the lives of competitors, in the latter case.)