25 May 2012 Edition
Between the Posts
Finishing the race for equality
Shouldn’t we see Team Ireland sharing one platform? Shouldn’t we demand that equal airtime and TV coverage is given to both the Olympics and Paralympics?
I WONDER WHY Michael McKillop is not a household name in Ireland. After all, he lives just outside Belfast and he holds the world record over 800 metres. Last month, he smashed his own world record by a phenomenal 15 seconds. In doing so, he became the first man to set a world record in the new London Olympic Stadium where the athletics event was held.
In his sport, Michael McKillop is the fastest man in the world over 800m. He holds the World record for 1500m as well. He is world champion in both events and is hot favourite for Olympic gold medals in both 800m and 1500m.
I don’t recall another Irish athlete in recent times with such a track record of success. Yet, there has been no great fanfare or public comment. Is it because Michael McKillop’s success is as a Paralympic athlete? In his early 20s, and having a mild form of cerebral palsy, McKillop is one of Ireland’s most successful Paralympic athletes. He also competes in able-bodied athletics and wore the Irish vest at under-19 level.
Inevitably, attitudes to sport are shaped by the same social forces that pervade Irish society - and perpetuate inequality. That doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
There will be two Olympic Games this summer in London: Ireland will have teams competing in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. At the risk of stating the obvious, the athletes who compete in the Paralympics will have trained just as hard as the athletes who make it to the Olympics. Nor will there be any difference in the competitiveness of the events.
So when the announcement is made at the end of the June about those athletes chosen to represent our country, shouldn’t we see Team Ireland sharing one platform? Shouldn’t we demand that equal airtime and television coverage is given to both the Olympics and Paralympics?
Apart from excelling in events, the Irish Paralympics team has taken on the mission of ‘inspiring the nation of Ireland’. Athletics are a great opportunity to express and exhibit the best qualities of human character and endeavour. The events in London this summer will provide this spectacle on a global stage, the pinnacle of which will be the Paralympic Games.
While the Paralympics are for elite athletes, many other children and adults with intellectual disabilities participate in the Special Olympics. Special Olympics Ireland was founded in 1978 and has athletes, clubs and volunteers throughout the 32 Counties. The Special Olympics World Summer Games were held in Athens last summer. The 126 athletes who represented Ireland brought home a total of 107 medals.
More important than the medal tally are the attitudes and ethics that these events seek to promote. One Special Olympics athlete summed this up very well: “Everyone should be accepted for who they are, not what they are.”
Even on the running track that idea is being tested. Take the example of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed ‘The Fastest Man On No Legs’ or ‘The Blade Runner’. He is a world record holder in 100m, 200m and 400m and won gold medals in all three events at the last Paralympic Games. Like Michael McKillop, he is a Paralympian who also represents his country in able-bodied athletics. He was part of the silver-medal winning 4 x 400m relay team in 2011 World Championships, becoming the first amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal. However, the participation of Pistorius in able-bodied athletics has evoked widespread debate because, as a double amputee, Pistorius competes with the aid of carbon fibre artificial limbs.
The International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that his artificial limbs made him ineligible to compete in the last Olympic Games in 2008. The IAAF claimed that Pistorius, with artificial limbs, had an advantage over able-bodied athletes. This ruling was later appealed and overturned in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Now, having recently achieved the Olympic qualifying time, Pistorius may finally represent South Africa in the Olympic Games this year.
Like it or not, the role technology and science in sport is here to stay. It could even aid the cause of athletic inclusion. A case in point is Claire Lomas. She was once a professional horse rider but broke her back in a freak accident five years ago. As a result, she was paralysed from the chest down and was told by doctors she would never walk again. Now, she has dramatically, and very publicly, proved them wrong.
Wearing a bionic suit, Claire Lomas competed in this year’s London Marathon with 35,000 other athletes. More than a fortnight after she began, Claire Lomas crossed the finishing line for the London Marathon on the same day that Michael McKillop set a new world record in the stadium nearby.
These athletes are testing the limits of achievement beyond what we are given to believe of their physical capacity. In doing so, they challenge us all to imagine a new vision for equality in sport. Can our ideas and attitudes reach that far?Ireland will take.