Sports Law Blog
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Monday, January 14, 2008
The thorny and challenging issue of disabled track and field athletes

Track and field competition presents unique challenges when it comes to how to handle disabled athletes. The latest example is the international track and field governing body's decision to bar from the Beijing Olympics "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius, a South African double-amputee who participates in sprint racing using prosthetic limbs. According to the IAAF's press release:
It is evident that an athlete using the Cheetah prosthetic is able to run at the same speed as able bodied athletes with lower energy consumption. Running with prosthetic blades leads to less vertical motion combined with less mechanical work for lifting the body. As well as this, the energy loss in the blade is significantly lower than in the human ankle joints in sprinting at maximum speed. An athlete using this prosthetic blade has a demonstrable mechanical advantage (more than 30%) when compared to someone not using the blade.

IAAF Council has been able to review the full report and has decided that the prosthetic blades known as “cheetahs” should be considered as technical aids in clear contravention of IAAF Rule 144.2. As a result, Oscar Pistorius is not eligible to compete in competitions organised under IAAF Rules.

Pistorius has vowed to appeal the case to the Court for the Arbitration of Sports. Presumably, the resolution of the case will turn on whether the IAAF has applied its own eligibilty rule accurately, rather than on any particular jurisdiction's disability protection laws.

Still, it's interesting to speculate as to how would this case be resolved under the famous Casey Martin decision were the IAAF subject to American anti-discrimination law? Remember that in the Martin case, the majority of the court opined that while riding a cart might be an advantage for most golfers, it would not be in Martin's case because he would be more exhausted than others even if he were allowed to ride a cart. Might the same logic allow an athlete who has no legs to use a device that would give an unfair competitive advantage in most instances but not in light of a particular athlete's condition?

Another great example of the challenging issues raised by disabled track and field athletes can be found in a case published last year, McFadden v. Grasmick, 485 F.Supp.2d 642 (D.Maryland 2007). In that case, a federal court considered the issue of whether not counting a wheelchair track athlete's performance in assigning "team competition" points at track meets violated the ADA. Since very few schools competed in wheelchair racing, the track association decided that it would be an unfair competitive advantage for the athlete's school. The district court denied plaintiff's request for an injunction.

Hat tip to UT 3L Matt Budds for bringing the IAAF ruling to my attention.


IAAF will surely win. This guy can run in the paralympics.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/14/2008 12:57 PM  

my problem with the decision is double:

1. unlike drugs we have no cheating element here.

2. there is no danger of this becoming a trend.

so let him run - as far as i know he is a marginal semi-final prospect.


Anonymous -- 1/14/2008 5:50 PM  

Unfortunately for those who feel that Casey and this guy are all victims of some sort of discrimination, the IAAF really does not care. It only cares about enforcing it's own rules. Ahh, the sweet and refreshing taste of international sports law justice: Make rules and enforce rules-such a foreign concept to Americans and Major League Baseball.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/14/2008 8:59 PM  

Take this one step further:

Let's say that there is a ruling in favor of the athlete, and the IAAF appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That body then rules against the athlete and in favor of the IAAF. I doubt the Court for Arbitration is covered under the ADA, so the athlete is out of the Olympics. Or, is it? (Imagine the checkerboard of countries under those circumstances; some would allow the athlete in question to participate in the--for no better word--non-disabled events while other countries wouldn't.)

Sigh . . . another reason to modify or eliminate the ADA.... .

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/21/2008 10:06 AM  

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