- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

Last week, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the Howard County (Md.) school district, allowing a wheelchair athlete to compete at the same time as non-disabled athletes.

The decision was an extremely poor one.

At the center of the case is Tatyana McFadden, an endearing 16-year-old sophomore who attends Atholton High School in Columbia. She won two medals while racing other T54 wheelchair athletes with spinal cord injuries at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.

The Howard County school system said it has worked hard to include McFadden on the school’s track team, allowing her to practice and go to meets, but has said the girl born with spina bifida can compete only in separate wheelchair events and not against the able-bodied girls.

Mark Blom, an attorney for the school system, maintains that “Wheelchair racing involves athletes using their upper body, arms, shoulders and no use of the legs. We feel it is material alteration of the sport to have a wheelchair athlete in a running event.”

U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis doesn’t agree.

“The more I hear your argument, the more transparently arbitrary and capricious it becomes. She’s not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons or money — she just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there,” she told the school system’s attorneys.

But McFadden already was included in the meets. That should be enough.

I am all for inclusion. But the inclusion of wheelchair athletes in the same competition with non-disabled athletes makes no sense.

Elite wheelchair athletes are significantly faster than their able-bodied counterparts. At the 2004 Paralympics, Saul Mendoza wheeled 1,500 meters in 3:04.88. Last summer, McFadden wheeled 3:30.60. The world record on two legs is 3:26.

Likewise, the top wheelmen in a marathon take less than 1 hours. The top runners take more than two hours. And they rarely start together. The wheelchair athletes are given an advanced and separate start for safety reasons and because they truly do not compete with runners although they use the same course.

In McFadden’s first “race” against the runners on her track team last Wednesday, she lapped the second-place competitor in the 1,600 meters, a four-lap race. Her time of 4:37.12 was just shy of the American girls high school mile record set in 1982. Technically, she was in a race of her own.

McFadden has no equal in high school — against other wheels or against feet. She’s that good that few athletes in the world can beat her in either mode.

What she has publicly stated over and over as her motivation for the lawsuit against the school system is that competing by herself “was lonely and embarrassing, and I just didn’t like it. Other competitors would come up to me and they would say ‘Good race,’ but it wasn’t really a good race because I was running by myself.”

But the entire system shouldn’t be changed to spare one athlete’s feelings.

Here’s the issue with allowing wheelchair athletes into the same race with runners: It’s not fair to the other runners. Why can’t I strap on my inline skates for my next track meet? Or just take a racing bicycle to the track?

Where does it end? Will McFadden’s mother, Deborah, sue the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations for inclusion into the Olympic Games and the IAAF World Championships?

There is no doubt that Deborah McFadden is a tireless advocate of children with disabilities. Working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services providing humanitarian aid in Russia, Deborah spotted and subsequently adopted Tatyana from an orphanage. She also adopted another child missing one leg.

It seem that McFadden always has been included. But if Deborah wants her daughter to excel further in the sport, she needs to find a training/racing situation with other wheelchair athletes, not runners. Maybe at the Olympic training centers in Colorado Springs or Chula Vista, Calif.

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