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Pistorius, SASCOC and the Great Dilemma

Ant thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick, covered in thorns and she’s poking the bear. When she’s not doing that, she’s watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

Oscar Pistorius has just made history by becoming the first double amputee to be selected for competition in the full Olympics. But, given that other athletes have missed the cut-off by less and remained excluded, one wonders if he was chosen for the right reasons. 

On Wednesday, Oscar Pistorius took one step closer to creating history. He was included in South Africa’s final Olympic team, which will make him the first-ever double amputee to compete in the full Olympic games. 

Pistorius notched up a personal best of 45.07 seconds last year and started this year with 45.20, both Olympic qualifying times. However, according to South Africa’s Olympic qualifying guidelines, he would have needed to run 45.30 or better at one more international meet before last Saturday to make the cut. He missed the time by less than a quarter of a second, but was nonetheless confirmed as part of the team for the 400m and the 4x400m relay on Wednesday.

“Oscar was selected for the 4x400m relay,” said Tubby Reddy, CEO of the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC). “Therefore, as one of the relay runners, by virtue of being there, we received a request from Athletics SA to include him in the 400m as well.

“He reached the ‘A’ qualifying standard once, and though he did not make the criteria for that (the individual event), the SASCOC board decided to include him in both.”

Reddy’s statements contradict those of SASCOC president Gideon Sam, who said that the team would be taking “no passengers” to the games and that “everyone has met selection criteria and is genuine Olympic Games material, either now or for 2016.”

Sam’s statement seems a bit off the mark, since Pistorius didn’t meet all the selection criteria for the 400m race, and was included as a direct result of the request from Athletics SA. Are SASCOC trying to convince themselves that they really have followed procedure?

Outstanding athletes failing to qualifying for Olympic events is nothing new – even for those with remarkable stories. Dara Torres is 45. Since 1984, she has competed in five Olympics and picked up 12 medals along the way. She set an American 50-metre freestyle record when she was 15 and again when she was 40. This year, she tried to qualify for her sixth Olympics, but missed cut-off by 0.09 seconds. 

P Kunhumohammed, an Indian athlete and a real prospect for the men’s 400m, won’t be going to this year’s games because he didn’t have the Rs 30,000 (less than R4,500) to get him to a qualifying event in Sri Lanka. The same is true for Joseph G Abraham, an Asian Games 400m hurdles gold medalist. Jason Smyth, a visually impaired athlete from Ireland, ran 10.52 seconds in a 100m qualifying event, missing the 10.18 Olympic ‘A’ qualifying time. He ran 10.24 in Florida in May and 10.17 in June, but the time didn’t count because of a wind reading.

Athletes miss the qualifying mark all the time. It’s harsh, it’s sometimes unfair, and it’s one of the many things that add to the intrigue of the Games. There is no denying that Pistorius is a talented athlete who has worked tremendously hard to achieve his goals. He’s an inspiration to many and a wonderfully down-to-earth man; his brave story will go down in the history books. And those who love to sing the praises of the “The Spirit Of The Games” will bang the drum endlessly, for sure. But is SASCOC’s decision to include him objective? I’m not so sure.

Had Pistorius been just another able-bodied athlete, nobody would really have cared whether he qualified or not. Sure, it would have been one of those “so close, yet so far” stories, but it wouldn’t have mattered in the end. As it is, it sets a precious double standard. An athlete wants to be treated equally, but because of his disabilities, that will never be possible – and it is a shame. 

He might very well reach his peak in London, and SASCOC will be praised for their decision to put their faith in him and send him off to create history, but things could just as easily fall apart and Pistorius might shoot blanks. Will SASCOC then have to face the jury on their decision to include an athlete who wasn’t quite up to standard, like they would were he an able-bodied athlete? Or will everybody shrug their shoulders and hide behind his remarkable story some more? 

The Pistorius story is one that has been marred by criticism from the start, from debates on whether his blades give him an edge to controversy when he tried to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet he has always persevered, and now, he will get to live a dream and make history. 

It’s remarkable and it really is a heart-warming story, but the pressure on him will be enormous. And only time – and his performance – will tell whether his inclusion in the team was practical or precious. DM


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