The Fight for Paralympic Justice: Blake Leeper
The Tokyo Summer Olympics return once again this year for a second attempt of executing the world’s most prominent athletic event, after facing the devastating postponement in response to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Sporting over 14,000 athletes spanning over 53 disciplines, the quadrennial event is the pinnacle of elite athlete’s careers, and for many, the single most important moment of their lives. Celebrated as icons to olympic history and inspirations to a younger generation of athletes, Olympic competitors are defined as the apex of perseverance and heart. Unified on the basis of equality in competition, spectators come together every four years to express their common enjoyment for sport. Nevertheless, discrimination of many forms still finds its way into the olympic hearth, damaging its core mission and values.
Today, in preparation for the 2021 sequel of Tokyo’s summer games, paralympic athletes still fight the disputes of athletic integrity on the basis of equality. Blake Leeper, a paralympic American track and field athlete, has been denied permission to compete in the 2021 games by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, under the claim of being in possession of an unfair advantage due to the prostheses replacing both his legs. After breaking records at the 2019 world championships, the global track and field governing body World Athletics ruled that he could no longer compete due to the alleged physical advantage his prostheses awarded him. Leeper’s participation in this year’s games would have marked him as the second ever double amputee paralympic track and field athlete, a title Leeper is determined to uphold.
It was concluded that Leeper was illegible for future competitions by the means of the parameters of the Maximum Allowable Standing Height (MASH), based on a formula used to estimate proportions of paralympic athletes that had only been tested on white and asian competitors, excluding the presence of black athletes and disregarding the possibility of body proportions varying between race, which raised concerns on the racial and ethical justification of this ruling. This same formula which resulted in Leeper’s exclusion from the games, is the same formula which permitted white South African runner Oscar Pistorius to compete at the 2012 paralympic games with the same type of prostheses as those currently criticized for Leeper. This case raised many inquiries and concerns, whether the motivator behind this ruling to end Leeper’s dreams were just, or if discriminatory incentives may have been a power source for that conclusion.
Leeper’s Attorney Jeffery Kessler filed a second legal challenge suggesting that the decision made by the court was inspired through racial biases, an allegation which World Athletics denied. The challenge had been filed not in claim of the decision being made explicitly in response to racial discrimination against Leeper directly, but that the decision was made without enough variables being considered for it to be accurate, and that “there’s no basis to apply this [the ruling] to Black runners without studying Black runners [bodies]”.
Hypothetically, with a pair of prostheses that would fit the MASH requirements, Leeper would be eligible to compete under the current regulations. However, he had been running with this set of prostheses for the last 10 years, and adjusting them now to fit the newly issued MASH requirements would fundamentally be impossible in an athletic sense. Making such a drastic adjustment to Leeper’s running height at that elite level would essentially require his body to relearn the movements they have been making for the last 10 years, a task which is simply not feasible to accomplish in time for Tokyo.
“Hearing the irritation in their voices and how crazy they think the situation is, it gives me motivation,” Leeper said. “I’m still training. I’m still fighting. I’m still going to fight what I see — and hopefully the rest of the world sees — that this is an injustice.” Despite unfavorable outcomes so far, Leeper continues to fight for his athletic honor and justice, and remains confident that he will make an appearance on the world stage once the olympic flame is lit.
Kilgore, A. (2021, April 27). Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper’s application to compete in
Tokyo Olympics denied. Washington Post.
Gillen, N. (1582). Leeper continues campaign to compete at Tokyo 2020 with CAS appeal.