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. As a consequence he fell afoul of the IAAF ruling.

The Law of England and Wales

What does the law say?

The laws of England and Wales relating to discrimination in relation to disability are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Under the Disability Discrimination Act a duty exists to make reasonable adjustments in order to accommodate the disabled individual to whom the act will apply.

Currently there has been no case in relation to a disabled athlete in England and Wales citing the Disability Discrimination Act in application to discrimination in relation to access to sporting competition.

There has however, been a case heard by the US Supreme Court under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this case the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) was banned from denying a golfer equal access to the tour who was required to be assisted in getting round the course with a gold cart due to his disability.

The courts held that the issues which needed to be examined were threefold and are as follows:

  • Whether the requested modification was a reasonable one

  • Whether it was necessary to help the disabled individual

  • Whether it would fundamentally alter the nature of the competition

Fundamentally alter the nature of the competition

Whether the use of equipment would fundamentally alter the nature of the competition was the key element of this case as the court was asked to examine whether the use of the cart would prevent the competitor from suffering the usual fatigue felt by golfers in competition. The effect of walking round the course, especially on the final day of competition was said to be a key factor affecting a golfer’s performance.

If this fatigue was not experienced by one of the competitors then this could be seen as an unfair advantage. What also should be examined in this case however would be the additional fatigue felt by the golfer suffering with the disability felt in playing his shots which may put him at a competitive disadvantage to the other golfers.

It is reasonable to assume that this case would be applied under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Positive discrimination

One of the leading cases in England and Wales under the Disability Discrimination Act relates to positive discrimination in that the reasonable accommodations made for the disabled person may extend to discriminating positively in favor of this person to the disadvantage of the other participants involved.

For example if following testing such things as prosthetic limbs are proven to give a competitive advantage to the disabled athlete then the level playing field will again be reduced. If this is to be the case then the sporting governing body could rely on the Disability Discrimination Act to rule out positive discrimination.