As the track world watches South African amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius pursue Olympic qualification running on prosthetic legs, the challenge of organizing fair competition categories for disabled athletes remains an ongoing issue for Paralympic sport.
Pistorius, 20, has made headlines for his wins by wide margins over fellow amputees and he is ranked second in his country in the 400 metres. But the world body governing athletics, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), has moved to block him from the Olympics with a new ruling banning "technical aids."
It's an interesting case that suggests an overlap between able-bodied and disabled sport and how we categorize athletes of all abilities and the controversies that can erupt in the process.
"To me, it's incredible what Pistorius is doing," said Scott Ogilvie, director of Paralympic Programs for Athletics Canada. "But then, there will be those detractors who will say his time is not what many would consider world class, at least not now, or maybe they will make him out to be a bionic man and say his flex foot may in some way give him an advantage. I've heard rumblings of that."
Pistorius, his coach and researchers all say he is not advantaged by his prostheses. While Pistorius promotes his wish to dash right out of the Paralympic realm, he said he doesn't see himself as disabled.
Ogilvie, based in Ottawa, reflected on the essential difference between Paralympic and Olympic sport: The classification system.
"The emphasis is on ability as opposed to the disability," Ogilvie said.
Classification is the structure for competition for disabled sport. Not unlike wrestling, boxing and weightlifting, where athletes are categorized by weight classes, athletes with disabilities are grouped in classes defined by the degree of function presented by the disability.
In track and field events for the visually impaired, for example, there are three sight classifications: "11s" are totally blind, with no light perception in either eye and requiring a guide runner; "12s" have low vision of varying degrees with the option for a guide runner; and "13s" have low vision but don't require a guide runner.
TOO MANY MEDALS?
There also are classifications for amputee athletes, athletes using wheelchairs, and those with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and intellectual disabilities (though athletes with intellectual disabilities are not part of the Paralympics).
The many classifications lead to multiple sets of medals for the same event, which in some cases raises questions about the quality of the Paralympic Games and level of achievement of the winners, according to Takis Papakonstantopoulos, a member of the Hellenic Paralympic Committee.
"Currently in the Paralympic Games, more than 200 gold medals are awarded in athletics and about 160 in swimming," Papakonstantopoulos wrote. "The corresponding numbers for the Olympic Games are about 46 and 32 respectively, but it would be wrong to conclude that there is a general requirement to move or reduce the number of classes without preserving the interests of all Paralympic athletes. The events for severely disabled athletes and the borderline cases are always an issue of great concern."
Papakonstantopoulos continued: "On the one hand, the classification system needs to be structured appropriately for athletes with varying degrees of disability. On the other hand, the Paralympic Games must appeal to the media and audience around the world."
Meshing several levels of classification in to "combined" events is one way the Paralympics are trying to reduce the numbers of medals awarded. Using a points system, results by athletes of different abilities are number-crunched to determine the winner in the combined event.
But this approach is less audience-friendly, as the winner of the race in front of fans may turn out to not be the winner after all. It has also led to the elimination of certain class-specific events.
"In track and field visually impaired (T11 class), which requires a guide runner. So if a T11 athlete wishes to contest the 800 metres, he/she must compete as a T12, against athletes with considerably more vision who do not necessarily run with a guide runner.
"In the Paralympics we're in this strange position where we've seen tremendous growth, more sports entering the Paralympics, but the organizers trying to hold the numbers," said Earl Church, Para-athletics head coach for Athletics Canada.
"So there has got to be a squeeze somewhere."