The return of Tatyana McFadden

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A year ago, I wrote about the case of Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair-bound athlete who wanted to race with/against runners in track:
In some sense, McFadden considers her most recent lawsuit a victory in itself: She finally has reached the last impediment, she said. She wants the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to count her wheelchair racing results in region and state meets toward the overall team competition. The MPSSAA contends that it already has exceeded its obligations by adding eight nonscoring wheelchair events to this year's track championships.


Instead, it made Bowler a hero to most able-bodied runners. At, a popular Internet site that features a chat forum and message boards, Bowler's letter -- especially when combined with McFadden's decision to file another lawsuit -- created a frenzy. The board's proprietor, local distance-running guru Brad Jaeger, argued that awarding McFadden points at the state meet would "absolutely ruin the whole sport." Teams usually win the state championship by scoring about 70 points in the state meet, Jaeger reasoned. So if Maryland awarded McFadden the usual 10 points for first place -- right now, she's only asking for one point -- that would drastically alter the meet. And should McFadden compete in the maximum four events? Atholton virtually would be ensured a state title.

Ultimately, there are three somewhat orthogonal issues here:

  1. Whether McFadden races alone or at the same time as non-wheelchair athletes.
  2. Whether her performance is compared to (for purposes of placing) non-wheelchair athletes.
  3. Whether her performance counts against the team score.
Last year McFadden claimed she just wanted to race alongside others (the first issue) but now wants to score points.
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."

First, recall that wheelchair performances are dramatically superior to non-wheelchair performances. The gap between wheelchair and non-wheelchair performances significantly exceeds the ordinary male/female gap. I'm not sure whether this is actually unsafe in the sense that it poses a threat to non-wheelchair athletes, but I'm fairly confident it could me made reasonably safe by segragating McFadden into her own lane until the point where she would be far ahead. Actually, it's the fact that she's so much faster that makes this possible, since she will quickly be far away from the other runners.

However, this gap also means that having her compete against ordinary runners, either individually or in aggregate (counting towards team scoring) is incredibly distortionate. Either her team will always dominate (remember she will win 3-4 events) or every other team will have to field wheelchair athletes (presumably by co-opting non-disabled athletes, as I suggested previously.)

So, what's the rationale for allowing this? Fundamentally, it's being suggested that it's unfair that the disabled not be allowed to compete on the same team as others. Certainly we've come to think of fairness as a basic social norm and so this argument is superficially compelling—if at all possible McFadden should be allowed to compete. But that doesn't actually give you a complete answer because it doesn't explain why she should compete in track. If you look at the wheelchair racer that McFadden is using, it's basically a hand-powered tricycle. The assumption that people seem to have is that this should be viewed as an unusual form of running, but it's actually just as reasonable if not more so to view it as an unusual form of cycling. Of course, if wheelchairs were treated as bicycles, McFadden would be at a significant performance disadvantage. Treating McFadden that way would be no more fair than treating her as just another runner. he problem here is that wheelchair racing is a fundamentally distinct sport from both cycling and running and that unfortunately for McFadden, it doesn't have much of a constituency.

As for team scoring, at some level, the set of events which is included in Track and Field is arbitrary (what does the shot put have to do with the two mile relay?). But it's not clear to me at least that any basic fairness norm implies that a certain sport (especially one which is highly unpopular) should be included in that set.


I think the arbitrariness is precisely the point. If there were a clear, logical criterion for defining track and field events, it would be very difficult for a wheelchair racer to claim a "right" to compete. But because "track and field" is an arbitrary collection of events, defined partly by tradition and partly by what amounts to athletic "taste", outsiders are free to attempt to assert their own arbitrary (or blatantly self-interested) priorities in choosing criteria.

The pioneers in this area, of course, are the Title IX litigators, who noticed that collegiate athletic programs are prioritized based on arbitrary criteria such as student enthusiasm and revenue generation potential, and saw an opportunity to try to substitute their own politicized criteria through the courts. If universities had had clear, rational funding allocation policies--such as, "funding proportional to student participation the previous year, plus x percent of revenue brought in"--then it's unlikely that the Title IX litigants would have had nearly as much success as they did.

Dear Dan,

What if a racing chair, were just a sport implement and a wheelchair event was "open" to any and all? Pole vaulting at one time must have faced similar participation issues. There are "non disabled" wheelers. As in all sports, with training, they are competitive.

The points situation is easy. One open wheelchair event. Full points.

What do you think? sh

Wheelchair racers, wheeelers, are only faster than runners at 500 meters and above. The existing world records of wheelers and runners are clear on the point of where running and wheeling are faster.

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