The disabled athlete who's 'too' able

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It took days for him to get out of the hospital after he lost his right leg, months to adjust to life with his new prosthetic limb, and years for him to become the elite athlete he dreamed of being as a child. Now, after all that time adapting to life with a disability, Markus Rehm is being told he has an unfair competitive advantage.

This is where we are in the progress of technology: a "disabled" athlete is creating controversy, angst, and even resentment because he's too able.

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On July 24, Rehm jumped 8.11 meters, or about 26½ feet, the longest leap of all long jumpers in the German Championships. Only the jump didn't officially count because the German athletics federation (DLV) determined that Rehm's prosthetic leg provides a "catapult effect."

This isn't the first time a Paralympian's success has stoked the questions about an "artificial" advantage, as Oscar Pistorius' candidacy for the London Olympics became an international discussion four years ago. But Pistorius was not a threat to make the podium at the 2012 Olympics; Rehm (pronounced REEM) would be in 2016. His personal best jump of 8.29 meters would have been good enough for a silver medal in 2012, and this year only six athletes in the world have jumped farther than the 26-year-old German.

Markus Rehm jumped far enough at the German Championships in July to win, but his result wasn't counted. (AP)
Markus Rehm jumped far enough at the German Championships in July to win, but his result wasn't counted. (AP)

The international track governing body, the IAAF, will take up the matter of Paralympians like Rehm competing in the 2016 Games in Rio "in the coming weeks," IAAF deputy general secretary Nick Davies told Yahoo Sports.

Even if it's decided he does have an advantage, Rehm is willing to take part in the games without having his ranking count toward the final standings.

"I would offer to compete off of the rankings," Rehm told Yahoo Sports. "I would. I have a chance to win a medal in the Paralympics, and I'm quite fine with that. I don't want to win the [Olympic] medal if it's not clear I didn't have an advantage. I am the one who has to sleep at night."

But whether or not he has an advantage isn't just a physical question, it's a philosophical one as well.

In the south of Germany, near Stuttgart, there is a lake about two hours from Rehm's childhood home where his family liked to vacation. Twelve years ago this summer, when Rehm was 14, he fell off his wakeboard.

"Behind us was a different boat," Rehm explains. "The driver didn't see me. I came into the propeller."

The prop sliced up Rehm's right leg as he floated there, the water reddening around him with his own blood. He was rushed to the hospital in the hopes that doctors could save him.

"After three days I got an infection in my right leg," he says. "Blood poison, they said. It was too dirty and my body reacted. They had to amputate."

Rehm's road back was quite long. He started his athletic rehabilitation on a trampoline, eventually returning to wakeboarding and even snowboarding. A little more than a decade later, he has become one of the most inspiring and intriguing Paralympians in the world. He won the 2014 German national championship against able-bodied competition, in the process breaking his own T44 Paralympic world record, and would have won again in July if the DLV had counted his result.

But just as it did when it left Rehm off last year's European Championships team, the DLV didn't allow him to defend his German national title because, as DLV president Clemens Prokop said last year, there are "significant differences" between blade jumps and natural jumps.

Differences, yes. But advantages?

Consider this: In the current IPC world rankings, Rehm is the only T44 athlete jumping over 27 feet. Only one other is jumping over 21 feet, Ronald Hertog, who's longest jump is 24 feet, 6 inches.

"How much of an advantage is he really getting?" asks Max Mehlman, a bioethicist and professor at Case Western Reserve. "The mere fact that he has this device should not be the end of the question, or the only question."

In his book, The Price of Perfection, Mehlman points to skiing equipment, which provided an arguable advantage to the Austrian team for a time. "For years, the premier racing ski manufacturer, the Atomic ski company, gave first pick to the Austrian ski team," Mehlman writes. "Coincidentally, perhaps, the Austrians dominated the sport. In the early 2000s, U.S. racers began to obtain improved access to the best pairs of skis after the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association made a concerted effort to woo Atomic executives."

In the years since, American skiers have done far better in the Winter Olympics. Is it fair to say this improvement is wholly because of the equipment? No. A lot of hard work, coaching, funding and commitment went into the athletes' success.

But then so it is the case for Markus Rehm.

This debate took off even before Pistorius arrived on the track scene, as pro golfer Casey Martin sued the PGA Tour in 1998 in the hopes of using a golf cart because of a rare circulatory disease affecting his right leg. Martin won and played on the tour for a year before moving on to become the golf coach at Oregon, but the precedent lifted the case for many disabled athletes who followed him.

Markus Rehm's personal best 8.29 meters would have won silver at the 2012 Olympics. (Getty Images)
Markus Rehm's personal best 8.29 meters would have won silver at the 2012 Olympics. (Getty Images)

"The Supreme Court doesn't say you deserve an advantage," Mehlman says, "but it has no problem bringing you up to a level where you're with other people."

That's the argument to be made on Rehm's behalf. Without the prosthetic leg, he would not be able to compete in the long jump. He needs the device to reach the so-called "level playing field." And for those who say the playing field is not level because Rehm is using something he wasn't born with, the counterargument can be made about everything from knee braces to contact lenses. If athletes could only use what they were born with, a lot of them would suddenly be disadvantaged.

And even then, how many athletes are born with advantages? Some have families with money to buy the best equipment, others are raised in regions where it's easier to find good coaching and competition, and still others have genetic traits (like large hands for a quarterback or long feet for a swimmer) that put them into an elite group before they even pick up a sport.

"The first time some truly enormously tall player walked onto the court in basketball, what did they think of the giant that came to play?" Mehlman says. "Some things are so strange looking and some new that they attract scrutiny. Ability is a continuum; there's no able or disabled."

Rehm's prosthetic leg (his plant leg) is a few centimeters longer than his left leg, and some point to that as a benefit. "The prosthetic seems 15 centimeters longer than the other leg," said Sebastian Bayer, who finished fifth to Rehm at last year's German national championships. "My legs are both the same length."

Yet Usain Bolt is taller than most other sprinters, and therefore takes fewer strides to the finish line. Very few say he has an unfair advantage, and no one says the shorter sprinters are "disabled." The meaning of "disabled" has started to crumble over the last several years, and Rehm is chipping away at it even more.

Still, the first person who would want Rehm disqualified from Olympic competition if he had an unfair advantage is Rehm himself.

"I don't want to win from an advantage from a prosthesis," he says. "I want to win from my ability. The reason I compete is not to take something away from other athletes. I just want to do my sport."

He wants, like every other athlete, to compete at the very top of his craft, even if it's not for a medal. He is aware his prosthetic leg allows him to compete, but he doesn't know if it allows him to compete with an unfair advantage. The German authorities have made their opinion known; Rehm isn't convinced.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I would like to find out."