Disabled athletes and able bodied competition

Can a disabled athlete compete in sport for able bodied individuals?

Over the years there have been many instances of individuals suffering with a disability who have competed in able-bodied sports. For example a legally blind woman has run the marathon twice at the Olympics and athletes who are bound to wheelchairs have also competed in the Olympics.

Sporting Rules

Are there any sporting rules which apply specifically to this scenario?

The International Athletics Federation (IAAF) introduced rules in 2007 prior to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games which dealt with this situation, states the following:

  • That the use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device will be prohibited in athletic competition.

Does this rule apply just to athletics?

This rule applies specifically to athletics with all events and disciplines covered by the IAAF subject to the rule. Most importantly this includes competitions and events which are subject to IAAF rules such as the Olympic Games.

What is the basis for this rule?

The key aspect of this rule is to ensure the level playing field is maintained across all areas of sporting competition. The level playing field is an integral component of sporting competition as without out it the entire basis of a fair competition would be lost. Consequently there are many sporting rules which are established to ensure the level playing field. Examples of this are as follows:

  • Rules in relation to doping and illegal performance enhancing substances

  • Rules in relation to gender segregation in sport

  • Rules in relation to the age of competitors in amateur sport at local levels

Why was this rule brought about in 2007?

The IAAF rules was brought in as a South African sprinter running both the 200m and 400m events was achieving times which would qualify him for the Olympics despite his disability. The sprinter had both legs amputated at age one and has been able to run using his prosthetic limbs from the knee down. The prosthetic limbs had been specially developed and contained a spring mechanism which enabled him to sprint as the springs were able to take the pressure that the rest of his body exerted on them.

Did this mechanism give him a competitive advantage?

The IAAF conducted tests with the athlete in question to decide whether his artificial limbs did in fact give him a competitive advantage thus affecting the level playing field.

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For more information on:

  • The Law of England and Wales
  • What does the law say?
  • Fundamentally alter the nature of the competition
  • Positive discrimination