unfair competition?

In a post a while back, I wrote about the potentially profound shift in attitude towards individuals with limb loss/disability that arises out of their successes in a variety of athletic events. Oscar Pistorius, the acclaimed South African sprinter and bilateral below-knee amputee is the most obvious example of this trend.

When Oscar rose to prominence competing against other athletes in the Paralympics, he became known as the “fastest man with no legs” and was held up as a symbol of triumph over adversity. But when he began competing against – and beating – able-bodied competition, suddenly a whole new discussion arose, centering around the concept of “technological doping.” More specifically, critics alleged that his carbon-fiber racing feet gave him an unfair advantage when compared to the flesh and blood of able-bodied athletes.

I’m both happy and sad to report that this discussion now extends beyond the benefits that prosthetics give to athletes, and into the realm of non-prosthetic-wearing individuals. Just over one week ago, Anthony Robles, a senior at the University of Arizona, won the 125-pound NCAA Division I wrestling championship. Robles has only one leg due to a congenital anomaly. And almost immediately after capturing the title, Robles found himself at the center of two distinct story lines.

story line 1: he’s an inspiration to us all

In this version of the story, the young man born without a leg overcomes unthinkable adversity. Competing against athletes with a full complement of arms and legs, he overcomes his limb difference and defeats them all, crowning an already remarkable career with a national title in his final tournament.

Reports are that book and movie deals are already in the works, and Robles has stated that he’s looking forward to a career as a motivational speaker. Everyone goes home happy and feels good about the triumph of the human spirit.

story line 2: exploiting an unfair advantage

In this less-happy retelling of the story, critics point out that, relieved of the weight of one leg, Robles has a competitive advantage over his four-limbed peers because he can effectively wrestle “down” several weight classes. Stated another way, they contend that if he had two legs, he would be unable to wrestle at 125 lbs, because he has the overall build of someone considerably larger. So, the thinking goes, this artificially light person exploits his genetic difference to beat up on puny opponents. One commenter on an article describing Robles’ achievement went so far as to contend that this advantage “ruined” the tournament.

Today, I want to explore two different things. First, because I think it’s a cop out for me not to offer an opinion on the second story line, I will spell out why I think it’s a flawed argument. Second and more important, I will focus on the broader implications of that second story line, as it’s the one that will, I submit, both become a recurring theme in the coming years and represents a unique challenge and opportunity for the broader LL/D community.

1. debunking disability as an unfair advantage

Let me begin by sharing the fact that I’m not a complete stranger to the world of real – i.e., not WWF/WWE – wrestling. I grew up hearing stories of the achievements of my uncle, also named Dave, who was a Division I wrestler at Colgate in the early 70’s. I spent much of my youth clearing away spaces in the living rooms of various family homes as he taught me about single and double-leg takedowns, the half-nelson, and what a cradle was.

I wrestled competitively for a few years before deciding that at 5’6″ and possessing the foot speed and leaping ability of your average two-toed sloth, I was actually a basketball player. (Remarkably, because our high school basketball team was so bad, I actually started on the varsity squad for a year.) That decision was expedited by the fact that I was becoming increasingly familiar with the intricate pipework of the basement ceiling where we practiced due to the amount of time my teammates forced me (unwillingly) to spend on my back.

While I wasn’t a particularly good wrestler, I regale you with this only-moderately-interesting tale to demonstrate that I have some familiarity with the sport. Now, let’s turn to the contention that Robles has an unfair advantage because of his limb difference.

First, I will accept as true the claim that Robles wouldn’t be wrestling at 125 lbs if he had two legs. I will also accept as true the argument that the rest of his body is that of a man larger than the average 125-lb wrestler. And finally, I’ll agree that much of what an able-bodied wrestler is accustomed to doing to defeat his opponent – including various moves that involve locking up an opponent’s legs with his own, or moves like the cradle that depend in part on controlling the opponent’s leg with your arms – isn’t possible when Robles is on the mat.

But that ignores the other half of picture.

Without a second leg, Robles lacks the ability to brace himself on one side as an opponent tries to force him onto his back. His ability to escape an opponent – either while on the ground or by moving to his knees and into a standing position is also impaired. Robles tries to shoot his takedowns while balancing on the one knee he does have, which it’s hard to argue is more effective than doing it from a full standing position with two legs.

His unique physical characteristics are simultaneously both his greatest weakness and strength. An opponent that could figure out how to use Robles’ disability against him would no doubt beat him. (As many in the college ranks, until this year, have done. More on that below.) Also, consider why there isn’t a small army of AK wrestlers tearing up the D-I ranks. If being limbless was such a big advantage in wrestling, we would expect to see more Anthony Robles out there.

The flip side, however, is that Robles has to be an inordinately difficult opponent to train for because there’s no one else like him. How do you simulate wrestling against Robles if you don’t have a really talented one-legged wrestler to practice against? The only opportunity his opponents have to learn how to defeat him would come by actually competing against him in matches.

Meanwhile, as opponents and teammates have tried to figure out how to exploit Robles’ weaknesses, he has spent every second of every day on a wrestling mat learning how those people would attempt to use his limb difference against him. I’m guessing that he has invested more time and energy than perhaps any wrestler in history analyzing his own limitations and finding workarounds to compensate for them. If you look at his collegiate record, the facts seem to bear that out.

First of all, until this year, Robles has never been unbeatable. Robles finished 4th at the NCAA’s in 2009, and fell to 7th last year. Over the course of his college career, he averaged about 6 losses a year.

But what’s also apparent as you look at the larger sample size of Robles’ career is that every year in college his record improved: 25-11; 29-8; 32-4; and 36-0. Like any athlete, able-bodied or otherwise, Robles got better as he gained more experience and as his body matured (there’s a big difference between a 17 year-old and a 21-22 year old, physically). In short, his career arc isn’t that of a bizarre anomaly, but rather, a typical high-performing athlete who improved his strengths and limited his weaknesses over time.

Bottom line: for every possible “advantage” that Robles’ limb difference gives him, there’s arguably a disadvantage as well. The evidence simply doesn’t support the conclusion that Robles is uniquely positioned, as a result of his limb difference, to compete more ably against four-limbed opponents.

2. what the critics’ response suggests

At the beginning of this post, I discussed the charges of technological doping levied against Oscar Pistorius. Notably, Oscar’s critics became increasingly vocal only after he began eclipsing his able-bodied peers in competition. As a result, last year I posed the following question:

In a world conditioned to see successful individuals with LL/D as “inspirational” and/or “heroic” – largely, I suspect, because of the able-bodied perception that the disabled are nobly striving to overcome the limitations thrust upon them – how will people react when they see these previously brave souls blasting by them on a track or regularly accomplishing things physically that people with all their limbs cannot?

It should be easier to embrace Robles’ achievements than those of prosthetically-enhanced individuals, shouldn’t it? Unlike runners using carbon fiber feet, no argument exists that Robles derives an advantage from man-made technology. His body is what it is. He has taken it onto a wrestling mat since high school and made himself into a dominant athlete. No carbon fiber. No titanium. No microprocessors or motors. Only the flesh and blood that God gave him. The backlash against his achievements is therefore more disturbing than the Oscar scenario.

When I first began running road races as an amputee, I found it bizarre that so many of my fellow runners and spectators shouted words of encouragement at me. They weren’t doing that because I was a marvelously gifted runner – trust me, I wasn’t. But, especially at that time, I was one of the few amputees they had ever seen on a 5 or 10k course. I was a symbol of something to the able-bodied population.

I was, in those people’s minds, brave, or courageous, or inspirational, or some other similarly-laudatory label they attached to me because of the disconnect in their own minds between what an amputee should be and what I actually was. But this was possible, I submit, in large part because of the following paradox: at the same time that I challenged their preconceptions by participating in an able-bodied activity, I simultaneously reaffirmed the order of the universe.

I was slow. I always finished towards the end of the pack. I wasn’t in any way a challenge to the other racers. My involvement validated a reflexive, nearly-universal assumption: the disabled, by the very nature of their disability, can’t compete at the same level as their able-bodied peers.

But Oscar, and arguably even more so, Robles, threaten that archetypal view of able-bodied supremacy. And, as often happens when generally-held assumptions get challenged, there’s a loud and reflexive backlash.

Some of the commentary is laughable. I’ve seen assertions that Robles, if he had two legs, would wrestle at 175-185 pounds. While I haven’t found compelling scientific data addressing this point, the general number that seems to be floating around is that one leg constitutes approximately 10-15% of a person’s total body weight. However, apparently in Robles’ case, these critics contend that his missing leg would weigh 50 pounds, which, assuming a total body weight of 185 pounds, would be almost three times that estimate.

But discarding easily-ignored or silly comments, we’re still left with the following reality: at the same time that people with LL/D find success on the same playing field (or track, or mat) as their able-bodied peers – what many would call “progress” – a whole new, regressionist dialogue begins. Which leads me to my final point.

The future leaders of the LL/D community won’t, in many cases, be the athletes whose accomplishments deservedly gain notoriety. Indeed, an unanticipated consequence of their success is that the very remarkableness of their achievements creates a new kind of “us v. them” divide, driven primarily by the reaction of those who can’t easily process this new world (human) order. Instead, we’re going to need bridge builders, first-class communicators who can effectively highlight our common and fundamental humanity to link people together by emphasizing what we all share.

And that skill is, in its own way, just as unique and rare as the physical gifts of Oscar Pistorius and Anthony Robles.

2 thoughts on “unfair competition?

  1. Pingback: crashing the party « less is more

  2. Pingback: post 100 « less is more

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