Disability and Sport: Hypermasculinity Explored

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Whether you prefer "the Blade Runner", "the Man Without Legs", "the Fastest Man on No Legs" or Oscar Pistorius, this young man's story will serve as a case study of mainstreaming in 'disability sports', specifically in the film Murderball. Pistorius is a 21-year-old South African below the knee amputee who won gold in the 100, 200 and 400 meter events at the 2006 Paralympic Athletics World Championships. Pistorius was regarded as being fast enough to earn a spot for the 200- and 400-meter sprints on South Africa’s Olympic team. Pistorius asked to be allowed to run in the Olympics if he would qualify for his country's Olympic team. The world governing body for track and field (IAAF) ruled on 14 January 2008 – invoking its rule 144.2 which deals with technical aids – “that double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius is ineligible to compete in the Beijing Olympics because his prosthetic racing legs give him a clear competitive advantage” (IAAF, 2008). The story of Pistorius well serve as the example of attempted mainstreaming of disability in sports, on the elite international front.

Does the film Muderball make progress in mainstreaming disability through sport? The merits of the film will be analyzed through the lens of the relationship sport and disability, as well as its connotations for mainstreaming in disability. Murderball presents a unique opportunity to reflect on representations of disability in the contemporary North American context. The narrative of the film constructs a rugby wheelchair rivalry between Team U.S.A., captained by Mark Zupan, and Team Canada, coached by Joe Soars. Murderball does exceptionally well in muddling the notions of people with disabilities as fragile and helpless, countering ableist assumptions about what persons with quadriplegia can accomplish. However, based on a close reading of the film, it is suggested that Murderball accomplishes this disruption through the celebration of ableist, sexist and heterosexist tropes. The following is a critique the film’s construction of the relationship between competitive international sport settings, disability, and masculinity by drawing on anti-normative politics. It is proposed that recuperations of normative identity in Murderball rely on a jingoistic and violent moral authority, while subjecting themselves to the constraints of normalcy.

Due to its popularity and its subject matter, the film presents a unique opportunity to reflect on representations of disability, through the unique lens of sport, in the contemporary North American context. In portraying disabled men participating in a highly risk involving contact sport in intensely belligerent nationalist settings, the film differs from the majority of North American cinematic portrayals of disability. As Irving Zola, in his Missing Pieces: A Chronicle of Living With a Disability, points out that "the use of the concept of danger was questionable, for a basic human right is the right to take risks", a right which a quadreplegic does not surrender. Murderball serves to humanize disability in this regard. It was compelling to undertake a critical examination of the film that Murderball works exceptionally well to disrupt notions of people with disabilities as fragile and helpless, and that disability was humanized through the story presented. Kurt Lindemann and James Cherney (2008) similarly argue that: “wheelchair rugby is itself a communicative act that sends a complex message to both the community of sport and our broader social collectives that counters ableist assumptions about what persons with quadriplegia can accomplish" (p.108).

Within the discipline of disability studies, premises of disability have evolved in the last several decades. Nigel Thomas and Andy Smith (2009) note that there has been “a shift from medical, individualized definitions and ideologies of disability to more socially constructed explanations of disability, which place more responsibility for disability on...
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