Before Oscar, There Was Wilma

By Gary Norris Gray
Updated: May 27, 2008

CALIFORNIA — This month, Oscar Pistorius won his case last week in the Court of Arbitration in International Sports at Lausanne Switzerland. The International Olympic Committee accepted the verdict and implemented it immediately.

This outstanding ruling only pertains to Pistorius and his participation in Beijing the IOC will review each athlete and case by case if this is presented again.

For those who do not know this situation, Pistorius had his legs amputated when he was a child with a debilitating disability that destroyed his legs. He now uses Cheetahs meaning aluminum legs, to run that are attached to the bare knees.

The International Association of Athletic Federation had previously stated that this was an unfair advantage to Pistorius because the Cheetahs give him 15-20 % more pushing power when he runs.

This advantage is reduced dramatically at the starting gate because he cannot use his legs to push off the starting blocks as non-disabled runners are able too. So Pistoius has to catch on with the non disabled field.

He will participate in both Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing, China. This is an historic event for all disabled male athletes all over the world and a victory for disabled sports rights in general. We the disabled seem to be the last American minority group still not recieving full Civil Rights.

It also seems like female disabled athletes don’t have to battle with such barriers and restrictions. The female athletic family does not erect barriers or sustain negative attitudes like the male athletic world.

40 years ago, American Wilma Rudolph made history in complete silence and four years ago, fellow South African Natalie Du Toit would follow in Rudolph’s footsteps.

They both did not have to file such claims or grievances to the International Athletic communities. They were accepted immediately and went to their Olympic games.

Disabled males now will follow both of these wonderful women and compete with anyone in any sport with this astounding legal decision. This decision overturns the IAAF ban of Pistorius three months ago.

The IAAF plans to appeal this month, but I think a united international sports community has spoken. This could be an on-going issue throughout the Beijing Games this August if the IAAF continues to disagree with this landmark legal decision.

This result strikes a blow for victory on the issue of the disabled male athletes being included in the sports world.

After the Court decision, Pistorius left Switzerland for South Africa to train and qualify for the Beijing games with his non-disabled and disabled teammates.

This case reflects how we view the vulnerable and most males are unwilling to look at their own frailties and human weakness and is part of the fierce battle between disabled and non disabled in sport competition.

The male athlete is so perfect in many ways and to lose to a disabled person is crushing to the male ego and psyche. This I feel is why it’s so difficult to be accepted in the disabled community by the non-disabled sports world.

This is the same experience African Americans had playing sports with white athletes in the 1950′s-60′s African Americans had to perform better then their white counterparts and the same circumstances are happening today with disabled male athletes at non disabled sporting events all over the world.

A 200 or even 300 in bowling is a very difficult feat for anybody so when it happens everybody takes notice. When a disabled person achieves this goal you can see the change in eyes of the non-disabled playing besides them.

The change in their body language is prominent. The disabled are not suppose to beat able-bodied people. This is the psyche of America and Americans.

This is tragic because bowling is one of the few sports where the disabled and non disabled could compete on the same plain with their common bowling abilities

Bowling with Cerebral Palsy and a motorized wheelchair is a real challenge.

Our Berkeley, California Bowling team had a three hour meeting with executives from the old (ABC) American Bowling Congress in 1987.

This meeting was to permit me and my teammate Gary Peterson who is also disabled to bowl in any league in America. ABC also said the two of us had an unfair advantage over non-disabled bowling because I used a motor devise to move the bowling ball and Peterson slowed down the game on purpose.

After the meeting and the demonstration, ABC changed the rule in their National Bowling rule book. We just wanted to play league bowling.

The disabled have to change the mentality of Americans on the issue of disability and sports. I love to play sports but was not allowed many times because of my disability.

I think that is a shame because sports teaches you so many other things about life and yourself. It teaches both the disabled and non disabled team work and trust. It teaches self esteem and it also teaches the disabled athlete about losing you cannot win every time but have fun playing.

Another South African Paralympian and Olympian will always be the first amputee to quailify for any Olympic Games. Natalie Du Toit qualified four years ago for the 10-kilometers open water event.

Du Toit, 24, lost her left leg in a motor scooter accident and competed in the 2002 Commonwealth Games and placed fourth in the Open Water World Championship Games in Seville.

She plans to participate in the toughest swimming endurence race of the games, the 10K, and should give the residence of South African much pride. But we all need to turn the page of history to find the mother of the disabled athlete.

The first disabled athlete to compete for the United States was Wilma Rudolph and boy she represented. Rudolph carried the torch for the disabled in complete silence. Nobody discussed disabled rights in 1960. Wilma just ran for country and self.

Rudolph was honored all over the world in Italy she was “La Gazzellia Nera”, the Black Gazelle and in France she was “La Perle Norie”, The Black Pearl. Many continental Africans knew of this wonderful woman and happen to be very proud of her.

Rudolph won three gold medals in Rome the first black woman to ever do so. Not only that but she was the first African American with disabilities to receive any metal in the Olympics.

She would set records in the 200 meters year after year until she retired in 1962.

She continued to coach and speak about her life until her death in 1994. Rudolph inspired many young African Americans woman to attend the Olympic trails.

In her young life polio and pneumonia attacks complicated with scarlet fever almost losing her left leg. Many thought she would never walk again but with her parents and her self determination she not only walk she ran for the United States in 1956 in Melbourne winning a bronze metal.

Rudolph suffered through a very difficult childhood in Clarksville, Tennessee but her parents kept encoring her to participate in physical therapy running everyday. Her mother would take her to the medical center twice a week at Fisk University some 50 miles away.

This little woman could barely walk in her pre-teen years because her gate was so awkward but was outrunning her classmate’s everyday in school. This determination would carry her throughout life.

In high school she would play every sport under the guidance of her big sister. They had 20 children in her family and they all helped in Wilma’s rehabilitation programs.

She went out for the hometown basketball team and the coach Clinton Gray (no-relation) would not put her in games, then in her junior year she scored 8 points a game and was one of the stars of her team.

She would later come back to the same school to become the basketball coach. She later would play basketball and run track at Tennessee State University.

She wrote a book about her life an autobiography called “Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph” She died fighting just as she lived in 1994 losing the battle with cancer at home in Tennessee.

Wilma Rudolph was always a hero of mine and now that the media is stating that Mr. Pistioruus is the first disabled Olympian but they are SO wrong and so incorrect, Wilma Rudolph will always be first disabled Olympian.

Natalie Du Toit will be the first amputee to participate in the games and Oscar Pistious will be the first male disabled Olympian.

Maybe now the American media will get it right.