Friday, August 27, 2010

Study finds troubling coverage of Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius

A new study by researchers associated with Penn State's John Curley Center for Sports Journalism examines print coverage of Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius' quest to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The study, recently published in the International Journal of Sport Communication, provides a textual analysis of New York Times and Time magazine coverage of the sprinter’s case. In January 2007, the IAAF (track’s governing body) barred Pistorius from competition, arguing that his “Cheetah” prosthetics provided a “clear mechanical advantage.” Four months later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the IAAF decision, citing a lack of conclusive evidence as well as new findings that refuted the governing body’s ruling; however, Pistorius ultimately failed to qualify for the Beijing games.

Drawing on Foucault's ideas about the body, this study finds that media discourses surrounding Pistorius reinforced “an unjust but seemingly natural body hierarchy” (p. 303), perpetuating a view of the able body as the cultural sporting ideal. Deviant bodies, like Pistorius’ and those of other athletes with disabilities, are constrained through discursive mechanisms and institutional structures of biopower that function through the knowledge and regulation of sporting bodies.

While some media coverage offered progressive perspectives on disability and sport, this study finds that media discourses concerning Pistorius generally revolved around issues of fairness in competition. The New York Times, for instance, suggested that Pistorius’ performance begs the question of whether he’s “too abled.” As the authors of this study argue, though, “[T]he too abled label reinforces body hierarchies rather than challenging them. It is not that Pistorius was too fast or too talented. It is that he, like other athletes with disabilities, is too different” (p. 303).

According to the study, the discourses of fairness in competition (a powerful normative value of sport) positioned Pistorius as deviant—a threat to the values, integrity, even very nature of sport. Other themes identified by the researchers reflect this apparent threat: a privileging of a medical view of disability (rather than the more progressive social view); descriptions of prosthetics that reflect cultural assumptions about “normal” bodies; and particularly troubling use of dangerous “cyborg” imagery.

This analysis provides a lens on the role of discursive mechanisms in the classification and categorization of bodies that don’t conform to a seemingly natural, but ultimately unjust body hierarchy. Media discourses concerning Oscar Pistorius, as “contested sites for meanings inscribed on the body,” reflect this tension (p. 288).

--T.C. Corrigan