Oscar Pistorius has a self-control issue. Given his history as an elite athlete, he probably has excellent self-discipline in some areas, but what he can’t control is how people describe, define, and analyze his body. According to daily media reports Oscar Pistorius’s body cried, vomited, became quite tired, and generally broke down during the first weeks of his trial for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, where he was ultimately found guilty of culpable homicide (not murder) and sentenced to five years in prison.
The recent murder trial is not the first case about Oscar Pistorius and the implications of his body. Many people could have those physical reactions if they were on trial in such an emotional case, but Oscar Pistorius is not just anyone. He is the “Blade Runner,” a man whose body has garnered more attention than nearly anyone else from the southern hemisphere. And the reporting of his trial has gone back to bodily details time after time. Those crying, vomiting, exhausted moments are portrayed as beyond Pistorius’s control, emphasizing a battle between the mind and body of a man whose body has been a battleground of rulings before.
Later in the trial, some media outlets picked up on a report from South African journalist Jani Allan that the crying was based on informal acting lessons he supposedly took. The quick questioning of his emotions and possible extra control over them mirrors questions that have consistently stalked Pistorius about his performances, running and personal.
As his recent murder trial reached its later stages, Pistorius’s control of his actions was the direct issue, and the responses breaking out of him actually supported his case of shooting due to a frightened reaction to thoughts of an intruder, rather than shooting in an uncontrolled fit of rage as the prosecution asserted. The emotion involved may have humanized him, as opposed to the “cyborg” identity going along with his “Blade Runner” nickname. But this is not the first case about Oscar Pistorius and the implications of his body.
In January, 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) determined that based on his prosthetics Oscar Pistorius was ineligible to compete in IAAF-sanctioned activities, including the Olympics and World Championship events. In May 2008, his appeal case came before the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS). At issue was Pistorius’s eligibility for participation in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. His fate depended on if and how much his Cheetah running blades, attached near his knees, gave an advantage over other athletes. More specifically, the issue hinged on whether his ability fell within the “appropriate” range—able enough to compete against the fastest sprinters in the world, but limited enough so as not to gain an “unfair advantage” from his prosthetics. That advantage could be looked at cumulatively (over the entire 400 meters) or specifically (at transition points within the race, such as the start). Particularly within the realm of athletics, the boundary lines of “appropriate” ability levels fluctuate over time and place; in the sporting arena, limits are meant to be surpassed as athletes strive to break records and barriers previously thought to be untouchable (like the fear that running faster than a four-minute mile would lead to death). As athletes train and records fall, athletics continually defines acceptable prosthetics and unacceptable ones as it sorts through performance-enhancing substances and new equipment. But Pistorius could only run as fast as he could run, using the best technology available to him. What that meant about his body and eligibility was in the control of a few scientists and judges.
Looking at the evolution of uniforms and footwear over the course of track and field’s history indicates numerous technological advances that seem to assist athletes beyond the limits of their bodies. Laura Behling observes, “[w]ith today’s technology, the prosthetic has taken over entirely; nothing organic remains.” Yet shoes are seldom controversial in the way that Pistorius and his Cheetah prosthetics have been, which raises questions about what kinds of adaptations to the body fall within the realm of human and which elicit fears of the “cyborg,” as his “Blade Runner” nickname implies. Is it the fact that the prosthetics are attached more directly to the body, or that they essentially replace a part of typical Olympic athlete bodies, or something else entirely that causes the different potential status?
The fact that Pistorius uses prosthetic limbs was not the explicit issue in his recent murder trial, but it remained a frequently unstated backdrop, as all sorts of other elements of his body were analyzed, as if there was a concern that he was connected to his body in a greater or lesser way than others in the courtroom—others who of course have prosthetics of their own, from contact lenses to iPhones.
Whether the prosthetics actually confer an advantage to Pistorius seems less an issue within the sporting world than the perception of advantage, and bodily perception is key for Pistorius; the ergonomic Cheetahs look “space age” enough to make people wonder, generating the fear that Pistorius can do too much. It is a bias against ability more than against disability in this case, because if Pistorius can run faster than “able-bodied” athletes, he might be beyond human in some way. As a potential cyborg, Pistorius disrupts the categories that make societies, and sporting events, seem reasonable, equal, and fair.
In 2008, the initial ruling from the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) “indicated that the prosthetic blades did illegally enhance Pistorius’ running,” although “the sample size for this study was not large and did not include any other users of the Cheetah prosthetic.” This result, based on a study by Professor Peter Brüggemann of the German Sport University in Cologne, claimed major advantages in reduced energy expenditure and efficient energy transfer for Pistorius. Each point of the study stresses that, in comparison with “able-bodied” athletes of the same speed-level, Pistorius holds too much of an advantage. By using less energy, equivalent potential (a vague description of athletic ability), and different running form, Pistorius exceeds the limits set by runners whose bodies and performances set the standards for his “normal.” That normal, of course, does not require prosthetics, and, based on this study, succumbs to unfair disadvantages when Pistorius enters the “able-bodied” field of play.
While Pistorius’s eligibility was initially rejected due to the study by Brüggemann, the athlete later appealed and was deemed eligible to compete in the Olympics with his Cheetah prosthetics. His story resonates with contemporary and future ramifications for athletes and humans who fail to fall within the parameters of “normal” humanity. The same questions of normality, advantage, and disadvantage arose in the investigations prompted by Pistorius’ appeal of the IAAF ruling. Pistorius was videotaped in Rome on July 13, 2007, to help determine if his Cheetahs provided him with an unfair advantage; the video results suggested that Pistorius was slower than other runners at the start of the race, during the first (roughly 50) meters of acceleration, and around the first turn. Pistorius appeared to be faster than the other runners on the back straightaway. This new information, coupled with the finding that Pistorius’ form was not significantly different than the “able-bodied” runners’ forms, generated new conversations about cumulative effort and advantage over the course of the race.
In fact, the initial IAAF ruling of ineligibility could be understood as calling Pistorius a cheater, perhaps even as calling him beyond human, or maybe just unfortunate in having a dream denied. As it turns out, this dream was only temporarily deferred, as a May 2008 ruling on Pistorius’s appeal to the ICAS ruled him eligible for the Olympics again. While Pistorius did not qualify for the 2008 games in Beijing, he did qualify for and run in the 2012 Olympics in London. With the victory on appeal, Pistorius officially became an honest athlete again, merely human, and still one of the most popular athletes in South Africa. Even so, Pistorius had little control over the fate of his body. He could make the appeal, but his body and how others looked at it and interpreted it determined his Olympic fate.
Fairness is central to a trial, and sometimes harder to maintain when the defendant is a celebrity. Fairness in Pistorius’s recent case meant seeing him not as particularly advantaged or disadvantaged, yet his Olympic past has led to such a focus on his body and its responses to the trial that his body was present in a way usually reserved for trials where race or gender is an issue. And running form is one thing, but what about Pistorius’s crying form, or vomiting form? Are those significantly different than so-called typical defendants? The scrutiny of his bodily responses, at moments hinting at a questioning of his humanity, continued the trial of his body and concerns about cheating, whether with prosthetics or with acting lessons.
I am reminded of Jesus’ entreaty about the treatment of the “least of these.” Oscar Pistorius is socially positioned as one of the “least” with his marked “disability” and his new official status as a criminal. At the same time, he is socially privileged as a white, male, celebrity, Olympic athlete who is financially well-off. But the point is to see the least and most of “these” as humanly as possible in a society drenched in inequalities, and even if the justice of treating Pistorius as fully human means a conviction, mercy suggests at least giving him some freedom from defending his body and treating him as a more integrated person, rather than as a mind or soul that simply uses a body as another prosthetic.
Oscar Pistorius had to train and discipline his body every day, like any other world-class athlete, but in his two court cases, his body is separated from the rest of his identity, and whether he can control it or really loses control, he cannot control the eyes focused on his body’s every move.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.