Disabled Athletes and Able Bodied Competitions

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

Yes, they can – subject to few restrictions. Over the years, there have been many instances of disabled people competing successfully in able bodied sports. The most recent high profile example is that of South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius who made history in the London 2012 Olympics when he competed in the men’s 400m heats.

Other examples include a legally blind woman who has twice run the marathon at the Olympics, and wheelchair bound athletes competing in the Olympics. In recent years, the Paralympics have enjoyed a higher media profile, one consequence being even greater determination on the part of many disabled athletes to compete in both able bodied, and para-athletics and Paralymics.

International Rules

Are there any sporting rules which apply?

There is a rule, introduced in 2007 by the International Athletics Federation (IAAF), which relates to the use of ‘technical aids’ during competition. Rule 144.2 of the IAAF Competition Rules states 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”. For example, some high tech prosthetic blades are banned as they would give a disabled athlete an unfair advantage.

The rules were introduced after Pistorius ran both the 200m and 400m able bodied events achieving times which would qualify him for the Olympics despite his disability. His 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.

The IAAF conducted tests with the athlete to decide whether his artificial limbs gave him a competitive advantage thus affecting the level playing field. He was subsequently banned from competing in able bodied competitions, but this ban was subsequently overturned.

Does this rule only apply to athletics?

Yes, it applies specifically to athletics in relation to all events and disciplines covered by the IAAF subject to the rule. Most importantly, this includes competitions and events such as the Olympic Games, the World Championships and the World Indoor Championships.

What is the basis for this rule?

The aim of the rule is to maintain a level playing field across athletics competition. This is a vital component of competition otherwise fair competition will not be achieved. Other rules with the same objective include rules in relation to:

  • doping and illegal performance enhancing substances
  • gender segregation in sport, and
  • to the age of competitors in amateur sport at local levels

The Law of England and Wales

What does the law say?

Discrimination laws have a potential impact in relation to disabled athletes in connection with able bodied competitions. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate a disabled individual covered by the Act. To date, there has been no case in relation to a disabled athlete in England and Wales under the Act in relation to access to sporting competition.

However, the US Supreme Court dealt with a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act, following which the Professional Golfers Association was banned from denying a golfer equal access to the tour. The golfer’s disability meant he required assistance in getting around the course with a golf cart. The Court held that the issues to be examined were:

  • whether the requested modification was a reasonable one
  • whether it was necessary to help the disabled individual, and
  • whether it would fundamentally alter the nature of the competition

A similar situation in England and Wales could feasibly be brought under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Is positive discrimination allowed?

There is legal authority to the effect that reasonable accommodations made for a disabled person may extend to discriminating positively in their favour to the disadvantage of the other participants involved, though how this could apply for disabled athletes remains to be seen.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A former solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.