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(Dis)Advantaged? The Changing Statuses of Oscar Pistorius

This week athletes will sprint, jump, run, throw, and vault their way through competition at the 2011 World Championships of Track & Field held in Daegu, South Korea. An athlete receiving a good deal of media attention is one of South Africa’s 400 meter sprinters, Oscar Pistorius, but not because he is a favourite to win. Both of Pistorius’s legs have been amputated below his knees, sparking an interesting discussion on the sociological concepts of status, stigmatization, and deviance.

400 meter sprinter Oscar Pistorius

Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius is a world class athlete.  By clocking 45.07 seconds in the 400 meters earlier this year, Pistorius ran the automatic qualifying time for the upcoming World Championships. Unfamiliar with track and field? Try sprinting around a 400 meter track in under a minute and you will appreciate Pistorius’s speed. Heck, back in my glory days I traversed this distance in just under 47 seconds, well, once, and that was in a relay race. Trust me, this guy can move! Pistorius is all over the headlines for the World Championships, but not because of his supreme talent.  Pistorius’s status as a world class athlete is accompanied by his status as an athlete with two prosthetic legs.

Before jumping into this issue, let’s get down a few terms. “Status” refers to a recognized social position an individual holds within a particular area of life. For instance, within a family someone may hold the status of a father. That same individual may hold the status of employee at work, and coach on his daughter’s soccer team. Even within one area of life a person can hold multiple statuses. In addition to being a father, this same person may be a husband and brother. All of the statuses a person holds is referred to as his/her “status set.” Pistorius undoubtedly holds a number of statuses, including world-class athlete.

Sociologists tend to divide statuses into two different categories – “ascribed” and “achieved.” Ascribed statuses are those into which an individual is born, or are those placed upon an individual by others. Pistorius for instance, is male. And some may say he is disabled. In contrast, achieved statuses are those which an individual earns.

In a field of 45 elite sprinters from across the globe, Pistorius enters Daegu with the 18th fastest time and holds a legitimate chance to make the finals. No doubt running such a time took extensive training, thereby making his status of world-class athlete achieved.

A final way sociologists utilize the concept of status is through the term, “master status,” referring to the particular status within one’s status set that is most important to the individual. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pistorius’s master status is of athlete. However, peoples’ master status varies, depending on what is most important to them at a given time in life.

Sometimes, an individual’s master status can be influenced by the way others treat them. In other words, an ascribed status can become a master status. This happens more frequently when someone is given a “stigma,” or a harmful social label through the process of “stigmatization.” Over the years, Pistorius has been stigmatized a number of different ways that coincide with his athletic achievements.

As noted previously, despite Pistorius’s phenomenal athletic talent, some may still stigmatize him as disabled due to his amputations. This ascribed status was probably more prominent prior to Pistorius’s rise among the world’s elite 400 meter male sprinters. Now with a shot at advancing through the World Championship rounds, Pisotirus is actually being ascribed with the status of cheater, as some critics suggest that his prosthetic running blades give him an unfair advantage over his peers.

Newspaper columnist Andy Bull sums up Pisotirus’s stigmatization this way, quoting former star sprinter from the United Kingdom, Roger Black: “…all of a sudden, some people saw him not as “disabled” but “too-abled” because of the blades he wears. As Roger Black has said: ‘The faster he runs, the more people are going to say that he has an advantage and we are not on a level playing field.’” Where’s the love, huh?

In other words, as Pisotirus’s success has become an increased threat to other elite athletes, he is no longer stigmatized as underprivileged. Instead, he is stigmatized in ways that label him deviant, or straying from the socially acceptable athletic norm. Rather than celebrate Pisotirus’s determination through adversity or simply treat Pisotirus the same as his peers in the elite 45-man field, he is being further questioned as an undeserving participant by critics who shift his ascribed status from that of elite athlete to that of cheater. This is an excellent example of how those with power can create deviant categories of people in our society.

Here’s wishing Pisotirus best of luck in this year’s World Championships, hoping he, along with the other qualifiers, seizes the moment and does his best through each round of competition.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Can a person’s master status change over time?  Explain using evidence from this article.
  2. Can you think of different examples where people with disabilities have been stigmatized in ways that label them deviant?
  3. Try to establish your status set by writing out all your current statuses and noting if each status is ascribed, achieved, or both. Are any of your statuses considered deviant?
  4. Start a discussion with your classmates/friends about Oscar Pistorius.  How can track and field competitions be fair to all athletes? How could you argue that excluding Pistorius is just?  How could you argue that excluding Pistorius is unjust?