Wheelchair athletes competing with others in track

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A handicapped girl in Maryland is going to be competing with other athletes in track events:
A Howard County high school track athlete who uses a wheelchair will race against peers who compete on foot and will earn points for her team based on her finish against those peers for the rest of the county's track and field season, officials ruled yesterday.

Mike Williams, Howard County's coordinator of athletics, acknowledged that Atholton sophomore Tatyana McFadden's times in distance events are likely to be much better than students competing on foot, but decided to allow her to accrue points for her team to comply with a federal judge's ruling. The move surprised McFadden and her mother, Deborah, who filed suit last month with hopes of merely competing at the same time as other runners, not directly against them.

"The judge never said she should get equal points because this was never about points," Deborah McFadden said. "The judge said that Tatyana is not asking for blue ribbons: She's asking for the right to be with her teammates. I'm flabbergasted and dumbfounded they interpreted it this way."

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Tatyana McFadden, 16, won two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. She is expected to compete in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter events today.

Though her average times in the 200 likely won't be good enough to win today, she likely will win her three other events. Her time of 1 minute 55.01 seconds in the 800 at an international meet last summer is faster than any time run this year by an able-bodied woman. McFadden has never competed in a 1,600-meter race, but her time of 3:30.60 in the 1,500 last summer would be the fastest time ever on foot, male or female.

In general, wheelchair times are much faster than foot times for almost all events. For instance, this year's men's wheelchair Boston Marathon time was 1:25:29. This year's mens open time was 2:07:14 and noone has ever run under two hours (the world record is 2:04:55, by Paul Tergat). In 2005, the California state girl's 800 meter winner put in a time of 2:04.5. Basically, letting people in wheelchairs compete against people on foot is like having runners compete against roller bladers or cyclists. It's not even close.

The McFaddens had simply hoped the judge would allow Tatyana to compete at the same time as runners. In most of her previous high school races, McFadden competed -- often alone -- in events designated for wheelchair athletes. She would score one team point for each event.

"The judge said many, many times the scoring system was not part of the case," Tatyana said. "I don't care about points."

Williams said the county's decision will not change unless he's instructed to amend the scoring plan when he meets with the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association's outdoor track committee this morning in a regularly scheduled meeting.

"The judge's ruling set no guidelines, so we feel we can't treat her any differently," Williams said. "We feel by doing this we have completely complied with the judge's orders."

It's not clear to me what purpose is served by having McFadden compete against athletes on foot when she's so clearly better, whether she's scoring points for her team or not. I raced the 800m and mile in high school and 10 seconds is an eternity. Basically, at the finish she'll be 60 meters ahead of the person in second place. That's not competing, it's a rout.

Of course, if she is going to score points, that's a very serious disadvantage for any team she competes against. But there's an easy countermeasure for them: have one of their own able-bodied athletes compete in a wheelchair. There's no reason to believe that she's a particular great athlete, she's just using vastly superior technology. It's true that there's a bunch of sport specificity, but with enough training, a good athlete should be able to put in a good showing.

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It's not clear to me what purpose is served by having McFadden compete against athletes on foot "In most of her previous high school races, McFadden competed -- often alone -- in events designated for wheelchair athletes." She wants the camradarie and enjoyment of being in a race with friends. It must feel pretty depressing and isolating to be in a wheelchair race against nobody, don't you think?

There's no reason to believe that she's a particular great athlete
You did read the bit about her winning two medals in the paralympics?

It sounds to me like this is a fit of pique, on the part of the athletics coordinator. He denies her the change to compete (for no points), then the judge says otherwise. So he says, "Fine, have it your way, and I'm going use it to ruin the event. So there." No doubt there will be complaints and bad feelings from other teams. He did it to make her feel guilty and take crap from her opponents. Ah, that takes me back to school administrators I have known. The tall nail gets the hammer!


And the idea that an able-bodied person from another team would have a chance against her just by getting in a wheelchair is foolish and condescending. "Enough training" would probably mean several months, which doesn't sound like many highschoolers I know.

In most of her previous high school races, McFadden competed -- often alone -- in events designated for wheelchair athletes." She wants the camradarie and enjoyment of being in a race with friends. It must feel pretty depressing and isolating to be in a wheelchair race against nobody, don't you think?


Absolutely, and I think it sucks, but I don't see how it's any less depressing to be "racing" but have absolutely no chance of losing. That's not racing, you're just on the same course at the same time.

You did read the bit about her winning two medals in the paralympics?


Yes, I did, but because it draws from a much smaller pool inherently, because many candidates don't actually compete, and because the events are inherently fragmented, the quality of paralympic competition isn't that great. Ask yourself the last time a 16 American girl won two gold medals in 400 and 800 in International track competition.
To give you a flavor for what I'm talking about, the visually impaired (T13) 800m world record for track and field for women is 2:03. The women's unimpaired world record is 1:53 and change. Moroever, the paralympics record in the same event is 2:13 and the world championships record is a rather silly 2:30. This is not what you generally expect to see in highly competitive sports.


It sounds to me like this is a fit of pique, on the part of the athletics coordinator. He denies her the change to compete (for no points), then the judge says otherwise. So he says, "Fine, have it your way, and I'm going use it to ruin the event. So there." No doubt there will be complaints and bad feelings from other teams. He did it to make her feel guilty and take crap from her opponents. Ah, that takes me back to school administrators I have known. The tall nail gets the hammer!


Yes, I agree that this is probably accurate.


And the idea that an able-bodied person from another team would have a chance against her just by getting in a wheelchair is foolish and condescending. "Enough training" would probably mean several months, which doesn't sound like many highschoolers I know.

I was estimating more like 6-12 months, actually.
I never said that they would have a chance against her "just by getting in a wheelchair". Aerobic capacity won't be a problem but building up the arm muscle would, especially for runners, who tend to have slight upper bodies.
I'm afraid that the notion that high school students won't train hard is what's foolish and condescending. Perhaps you don't know the right high schoolers. When I was in high school, many track athletes trained five days a week throughout the entire school year, plus training or racing on weekends and keeping fit during the summer. Now, you might say that the cost/benefit ratio of forgoing your regular training in order to win one meet is too high, but if several schools had wheelchair athletes (this kind of disability isn't that uncommon) then the payoff would probably be worth it.

If you weren't there, you don't know what you are talking about. This young woman is champion all the way!

Her fight is about her civil right "to be included" with her non-disabled peers as guaranteed under section 504 of the civil rights statute. The other kids running get it and support her effort. It's the administrators who don't seem to be able to stretch their imaginations...

Hmm...

I understand that she wants to be included and it's quite possible that there's some legal right for her to be formally included, but the point I'm making--and that your comment doesn't address--is that the inherent mismatch in performance levels makes meaningful inclusion impossible. Sure, she can be on the same track at the same time as the non-disabled athletes, but since barring equipment failure she has no realistic chance of losing, what's the point?

It's a high school "educational" experience. Some kids always come in last - but they participate because of factors other than winning. I'm not saying kids don't want to win, but sometimes, it isn't the only reason they want to participate.

You've got it backwards. It's not that she's going to come in last--it's that she's always going to win. I actually knew a bunch of the kids who always came in last and while I don't know for sure what their motivations were, my impression was that they were training hard and hoped that they would eventually not come in last. This wasn't totally unrealistic because people do get better with training. I don't really see the parallel with this case, where any improvement she might experience would be basically irrelevant--or at least no more relevant than if she was time trialing--since she's already way ahead.

Hey Eric,

Its been a long time since I read your post.

My kids go to school with Tatyana...small world.

Art

It's not always about first or last, but getting in the game. Don't know how many ways to say it. She just wanted to race with someone else on the track with her. She doesn't care about the points. The girl who won the 1600 even said she saw Tatyana out in front and it made her run faster. The kids don't have a problem, why should anyone else?

Well, the problem here is with the phrase "getting into the game". When there's no realistic chance of one competitor beating the other--no matter how much they train or how talented they are--then they're not in the same game.

And as for why should anyone else have a problem? I don't have a problem with it in the sense that I want it stopped. I just think the stated rationale doesn't hold up under examination.

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