Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Wheelchair Racing Ethics

Whatever it is that leads otherwise intelligent and fair-minded people to take leave of their senses whenever the handicapped are involved, it is on full display in the ongoing saga of Tatiana McFadden. McFadden is a 17 year-old wheelchair athlete and a remarkable one. Born with spina bifida, she has developed the arms of a shot-putter and is a two-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair racing. But she wants to compete on an equal basis in high school track events, and her parents are bludgeoning the schools and the state of Maryland with lawsuits so she can get her way.

Their suit states that Maryland’s rules, which do not allow wheelchair athletes the right to race against able-bodied runners in high school track events, deny McFadden “meaningful participation and equal access to the benefits of the high school track tournaments based on her disability. … Unlike her teammates, Ms. McFadden is prohibited from contributing to and being part of a team effort due to her disability. According to (state) policies, when it counts the most, students in wheelchairs do not count.”

This is an abuse of the legal system, but more than that, it is wrong. What McFadden wants is so obviously unfair that her law suit should have been thrown out the window the second it hit a judge’s desk. Wheelchair athletes are (of course!) faster than runners who move the old-fashioned way, because they have wheels, and wheels are faster than feet. The very concept of a fair race requires that the participants compete on equal terms (I nearly wrote “footing”), and this, unfortunately, relegates McFadden to competitions against other wheelchair-users. Permitting her to race against high school runners who have only their legs for propulsion renders any competition absurd. The non-handicapped racers would have no chance, unless Tatiana got a flat tire or lost a screw.

Yet listen to McFadden’s mother, who is in a state of high righteousness: “What’s so hard about understanding what we’ve learned from people of color and women?” Deborah McFadden said. “Everybody deserves to be treated fairly and equitably. That’s all Tatyana is asking.”

That is not what Tatiana is asking. Are men allowed to enter women’s tennis, boxing, golf, and track events? No, because it would be unfair; it would wreck the competition, and render it a farce. The non-handicapped track athletes have a right to be treated fairly too, and making them compete against a vehicle is not fair. What if Tatiana used a horse to get around instead of a wheelchair? Would it be “fair” to allow her to use the horse in track meets? Why is the advantage of a horse more ridiculous than the advantage of a specially engineered vehicle?

It isn’t. The Scoreboard eagerly anticipates the inevitable lawsuit by the man with a bionic arm who wants to be allowed to throw the ball 200 miles per hour in a baseball game, or knock a boxing opponents head into the rafters. If Tatiana’s suit wins, he’ll have strong precedent to rely on.

Generously but stupidly, Howard County agreed to allow McFadden to win points for her team in individual heats, creating a nonsensical precedent. If it makes sense to allow a wheelchair racer to earn points for her team in a track event for able-bodied runners, then why not race them against each other? But it doesn’t make sense. It is unfair.

The lawsuit accuses Maryland of violating the federal Rehabilitation Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by creating rules that bar McFadden and other athletes who use wheelchairs from scoring points in track meets. And who knows: maybe the law, like most of the disabilities statutes, was so miserably drawn that a judge can find an obligation to let McFadden compete. Then, once the competition has been turned into a farce, maybe all the other runners will sue to be allowed to use wheelchairs too.

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