GUEST BLOG: Oscar Pistorius' forerunners
6th July 2012 - David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton
How to Watch the Olympics is David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton's indespensible guide to the Games, taking you through all you need to know about unfamiliar sports like handball, canoeing and taekwondo, as well as popular favourites like boxing, swimming and athletics.
In the third of a weekly series of blogs, David and Johnny reveal that disabled athletes were competing at the Olympic Games long before the first Paralympics in 1948.
It was announced on Wednesday that Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee known as the Blade Runner, has been selected to represent South Africa in the 4 x 400m relay at the London Games. This follows a drawn-out saga during which Pistorius was initially allowed to compete in International Amateur Athletics Federation events, then banned, on the grounds that his springy carbon-fibre lower limbs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes, then ruled eligible again.
The crucial decision was reached in May 2008, when the Court of Arbitration in Sport ruled that Pistorius was eligible to compete in IAAF races while wearing wearing Össur's Flex-Foot Cheetahs®, the lower leg prostheses used by more than three quarters of Paralympic amputee athletes. After considering extensive scientific evidence, the Court found that the Cheetahs bestowed no discernible advantage on Pistorius. There is certainly nothing bionic about them - they are passive elastic springs that can neither generate positive power nor absorb negative power (whatever that may be).
The excitement that followed the Court of Arbitration's decision died down when Pistorius failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, but today's news will rightly be hailed as a triumph for disability rights, not to mention the courage and perseverance of the man himself. It would be a great mistake, however, to assume that he will be the first disabled athlete to take part in the 'regular' Games, even if his artificial limbs do take us into new territory.
One of the trailblazers in this department was the American Ray Ewry, aka the Human Frog, who blew away all-comers in the standing jump events that were all the rage in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Between 1900 and 1908, he won every Olympic gold available. As a child, Ewry had been confined to a wheelchair by a bout of polio. But in defiance of medical predictions that he would never walk again, he exercised his legs until they were so strong that he was able to jump nine feet backwards. We'll be impressed if you can manage three.
Weightlifting positively favours athletes with unusually short limbs, as they don't have to hoist the weights as far up as regularly proportioned lifters. But Joe di Pietro of the USA, bantamweight champion at London '48, took matters to extremes. His arms were so short that he even with them fully extended upwards, he had to bend his head out of the way of the bar.
In 1952, Danish rider Lis Hartel became the first woman to win an Olympic Equestrian medal when she came second in the Dressage. Still more remarkably, she was paralysed below the knees.
Spare a thought too for South Korean archer Im Dong Huyn, team gold medalist in 2004 and 2008. Incredibly, he has 20/200 vision, which qualifies him as legally blind in his native country. He refuses to wear glasses or contact lenses during competition.
Read David and Johnny's two previous blogs: on Olympic opening ceremonies and how medals were once awarded for the arts.
Yes we have a section of books on the Olympics.
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