Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Michael Phelps can lay claim to being the most decorated Olympian of all time, and Missy Franklin just might be the best high school swimmer of all time, but the 2012 Summer Olympian most likely to be remembered a century from now is South African 400-meter runner Oscar Pistorius.
Phelps and Franklin were wonders to behold in the 50-meter swimming pool and will leave London with multiple gold medals around their necks. Pistorius, the double amputee, made history by advancing from the preliminary round of the 400-meter dash to the semifinals, where he placed last. But it is his memory that will endure.
The passage of time will reveal that it was the combination of courage and grace exhibited by Pistorius that changed our culture, likely forever. None of us will ever look at athletes who happen to be missing a limb or two in the same way again.
Pistorius pushed the boundaries of Olympic conventions and successfully appealed a ruling of the International Association of Athletics Federations that had decided his carbon fiber running blades gave him an advantage over able-bodied competitors.
My first meaningful lesson in how to respond to “disabled” athletes came in 1979 and 1980 when I had the opportunity to cover Steamboat Springs High School track and football athlete Tom Southall.
Southall established a state record long jump for his school’s classification as well as a single-game rushing record. He realized those achievements in spite of the fact that his right arm ended in a nub just below his elbow. Southall is not an amputee; he was born with his arm in that condition.
His most impressive athletic achievements might have been the fact that he was the starting point guard for a state playoff basketball team and fielded and returned punts on the football field with devastating results for his opponents.
What I remember best about Southall was his refusal to acknowledge that he had any disability.
Like Southall, Pistorius was born with a disability — he didn’t have a fibula in either leg, and doctors recommended amputation when he was an infant.
The debate about the decision to allow Pistorius to compete in the London Olympics surrounds the question of whether his blades give him a mechanical advantage over athletes who have the use of all four limbs.
It’s not a simple question to answer, and I’m not rejecting any scientific arguments. We can expect similar inquiries in the future into other types of equipment for adaptive athletes in other sports.
But I know that I will always draw inspiration from my old friend Tom Southall and from a man I have never met named Oscar Pistorius.
Just as Jesse Owens did in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Pistorius has transcended mere sport to elevate perceptions of an entire group of people in our culture.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com