This summer, the world was captivated by an Olympian who failed to win a single medal. The South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius won hearts and minds just by lining up to race. Why? Well, the fact that his legs are metal from his knees down probably helped.
Pistorius, a double-amputee since he was 11 months old, has miraculously been able to build himself a successful running career in both able-bodied and disabled events: winning several silver medals in events ranging from the South African Championships to the World Championships against able-bodied peers, and completely dominating the disabled sports world. Indeed, the attention Pistorius has received is warranted: it’s truly inspirational that a man lacking human legs could qualify to compete in the world’s premier sporting event.
As much as Pistorius has been the poster child for disabled athletes this past year, his story is hardly the only story of success. Sports like cycling, track and field, and archery have prominent disabled divisions, while sports like basketball and tennis have organized wheelchair leagues. The Paralympics have aimed to do for disabled athletes what the Olympics have done for those without similar disadvantages. And even here in New York City, when the annual marathon comes around, hundreds of wheelchairs can be seen racing alongside the city’s greatest distance runners.
For disabled athletes, sports are about more than competition. They are about struggling with these athletes’ own damaged bodies. They are about personal achievement and improvement. For these athletes, sports are healing.
Sustaining a permanent injury is a jarring experience, to say the least. Things like partial paralysis, loss of limbs, and diseases that inhibit muscle function or growth are both physically impeding and emotionally draining. Coping with these injuries requires major lifestyle changes, which can leave people feeling lost and devoid of direction.
Enter the world of sports.
Sports provide little benchmarks, tiny goals that people can aspire to fulfill. The process of physical rehabilitation and self-improvement in a sport can provide the kind of motivation that a disabled person needs to get going. Sports help disabled athletes learn to better use their bodies and to return to a more positive, goal-driven mental state. Sports provide them with not only a means of physical rehabilitation, but also a way of healthily reintegrating themselves into everyday life.
And, after all, this is what is so important about sports for all of us. They give us something to strive for, something to root for, and something to celebrate. It is the companionship of sports, the shared triumph and heartbreak, that helps us bond and grow as a community. It is no secret that sports can be healing for all people, and provide a common, comforting ground for us to revel in, even in the face of a troubled world.
So the next time a sports rivalry culminates in physical violence, or a season gets delayed or cancelled due to disagreements over multimillion-dollar revenue sharing, look to the world’s disabled athletes, those both accomplished and more obscure, those professional and personal. With any luck, they’ll remind you of the value that sports had for us in the first place.