It is official. Para-athletes are not just #Superhuman (copyright Channel 4), but some of them are actually better than their Olympic counterparts.
“Four Paralympians Just Ran The 1500m Faster Than Anyone At The Rio Olympics Final” gushed The Huffington Post in its headline, opening the story thus: “On Sunday, Fouad Baka of Algeria finished a 1500-meter race in just 3 minutes and 49.59 seconds at Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
That’s fast, so fast that if Baka had finished with that time at that exact stadium in August, he would have beat out Matthew Centrowitz Jr. of the U.S. for the Olympic gold medal. Centrowitz Jr. finished the final in 3 minutes and 50 seconds.”
CNN wrote “Paralympians have been breaking barriers for years, but four men broke new ground when they smashed the times set in the 1,500-meter final at last month’s Olympics.”
Even Adam Hills said so, just as the credits rolled at the end of another enjoyable episode of The Last Leg, so it must be true.
And it is for a given definition of the word ‘true’.
Let me nail my colours to my mast at this point. As I say on my welcome page, I am a mathematician by trade, a sports fan by choice and a sufferer from Parkinson’s by chance. I am in awe of the achievements of the para-athletes and their incredible efforts. Many years ago I could be found competing for South London Harriers in the Southern Mens Athletics League, division 5. I hurdled and jumped, but can’t remember doing a 1500m. Now I can’t even run non-stop for four minutes, let alone cover a distance of 1500m. In spite of the fact that I have yet to find a single paralympian who was competing with Parkinson’s, I am cheering them all the way.
Traditionally when you write a paragraph like that it is usually followed with a “but” and who am I to go against tradition.
But there is much more to this story than some reports suggest, and as some more eloquent writers have commented elsewhere about the unfailingly up-beat attitude to disability, in this case I am uneasy at the way a casual reader could be misled into diminishing the effect of disability on the disabled, so let me have a go at defining ‘true’.
Olympic 1500m Men
1st Matt Centrowitz USA 3:50.00.
2nd Taoufik Makhloufi Algeria 3:50.11
3rd Nick Willis New Zealand 3:50.24
Paralympics 1500m T12/13
1st Abdellatif Baka Algeria 3:48.29 WR
2nd Tamiru Demesse Ethiopia 3:48.49
3rd Henry Kirwa Kenya 3:49.59
The times are undeniably faster, so taken at purely face value, the story is true; but are there other factors to take into consideration. From years of watching athletics I know the Olympic 1500m is often a very tactical race, all about the winning, not the time. The IAAF report on the race reveals this to be the case. Matt Centrowitz controlled the race from gun to tape, ran a ‘sedentary’ first 400m in 66.83s, followed by an even slower second lap of 69.76s, before Matt threw in a 50.62s final lap. So the race was very tactical. All of this contributed to the slowest final since 1932. That’s not a typo: 1932, eighty-four years ago.
Next I thought about qualifying for the final. There were two semifinals for the Olympics. The first five from each race plus two fastest losers qualified for the final. The winning times were 3:39.73 and 3:39.42, while the two fastest losers ran 3:40.11 and 3:40.29. Abdellatif Baka would have needed to run more than 8 seconds faster than his new world record to qualify. It is a similar tale in the heats.
How hard was it to qualify for the Paralympics final? You didn’t have to qualify, it was a straight final. Just one race as opposed to a heat, a semi and then the final.
Some sources reports didn’t put any of this context or included it at the very end. Please don’t think I am trying to diminish the achievement of Abdellatif, Tamiru and Henry in any way. They earned their medals and their headlines; I just wish their achievements had been celebrated in context to keep expectations real. How many casual observers will now assume that disabled people can all be capable of exceeding expectations. Not a cheery thought for anyone facing a reassessment of their ESA or PIP.
Also comparisons between the Olympics and the Paralympics are invidious.
If I were lucky enough to be at a recording of ‘The Last Leg’ I would not be very popular (particularly with Josh) if I pointed out the the tremendous sprinter Jonnie Peacock – “that jet-heeled, peroxide-haired blur of sprinting brilliance” (as The Telegraph described him) was a second slower than Usain Bolt and so about 10 metres behind him. It just is wrong to try to compare the two sprinters in particular or the two events in general