Competitive sports with and without disabilities: Alone instead of together?

Photo: Markus Rehm jumping; © Ralf Kuckuck, DBS-Akademie

His good accomplishments make Markus Rehm an issue; © Ralf Kuckuck, DBS-Akademie

Is a prosthesis an advantage? Researchers at Bournemouth University in England try to answer this question and examine to what extent lower limb prosthetics represent a competitive advantage in joint competitions of athletes with and without disabilities. During the past few months, the "Markus Rehm case" has attracted a great deal of attention – and criticism in Germany.


During the German Championships in 2014, the track and field athlete jumped and landed at 8.24 meters and thereby one-upped athletes without any disabilities. Due to an amputation of his lower right leg, Markus Rehm jumps using a prosthesis. And apparently he did so farther than everyone else. This quickly brought up allegations of "technology doping": Rehm’s prosthesis was said to give him an unfair advantage over long jumpers without disabilities. The result: his jump was evaluated separately. According to the German Athletics Association (Deutscher Leichtathletik-Verband), this was the fairest solution.

Criticism of Rehm

"Whether prosthetics in athletics represent an advantage or disadvantage for athletes still needs to be determined," says Rehm in an interview with "I very much support the scheduled official studies and am willing to be a part of them. Despite some people already having claimed the opposite is true."

The coverage on the "Rehm Case" was met with resentment by other athletes like Rehm’s colleague and fellow long jumper Heinrich Popow for example. He made some critical remarks in an interview. "I am not talking on behalf of all athletes here," Rehm emphasizes. "My opinion is always portrayed in a much more extreme way than it actually is. No wonder that this results in some harsh criticism to some measure."

The fact that joint competition can fundamentally work has already been demonstrated during the German Championships of able-bodied athletes in 2014 where he jumped the farthest, believes Rehm. Despite criticism from all sides, he also received a lot of positive feedback on this.

"What‘s important is to look into this subject," the man from Leverkusen believes. "I want to clearly state this once more: I don’t want to be put at an advantage. Above all else, I support fairness in sports."

Photo: Kirsten Bruhn sitting next to wheelchair in front of a pool

Kirsten Bruhn no longer participates actively in competitions; © private

Acceptance of Paralympic sports

This is something that is also very important to Kirsten Bruhn. The now no longer active but very successful swimmer believes it’s a shame that Markus Rehm was not allowed to defend his title as German champion. Despite all that, the accusation of "technology doping" is not entirely unjustified, in her opinion. "Not everyone shares the same auxiliary means and circumstances. To ensure one hundred percent fairness, all athletes would have to wear the same prosthesis and also jump with this prosthesis. After all, some people do not jump off using the prosthesis for example but with their actual leg," Bruhn points out.

In her view, this controversy also has a positive side: it makes Paralympic sports more visible in the general perception. "The media actually only portrays disability sports during the Paralympic games. We virtually don’t exist in between."

Combining the Olympics and Paralympics?

The next Summer Paralympics will take place in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro – approximately two weeks after the Olympics. But why do these two major sporting events still take place separately? Why are they not happening at the same time?

"I believe the basic idea is a good one. However, this would be hard to accomplish logistically," says Bruhn. "What’s more, individual competitions, sports and athletes would disappear and garner less attention and recognition."

Bruhn thinks things should first start on a national level, for instance by hosting German Championships of individual sports at the same time. "This would be a quantum leap I would support." She also not only sees this as an incentive for the athletes but also as an added benefit for the viewers since they would be introduced to what disabled sports have to offer.

Markus Rehm also agrees that the Olympics and Paralympics should remain separated. "The Paralympics convey entirely different values that would disappear if the two games were combined."

Nevertheless, both games should be brought closer together, believes Rehm. "For instance, why does the Olympic flame have to be extinguished only to be ignited again two weeks later?" the athlete asks. "It would be far better to perform a relay and pass the torch or something to that effect. In addition, one or two Paralympic events could take place between Olympic competitions." This way Paralympic athletes would get the chance to present their achievements and their sport – and to a wide audience that generally doesn’t have any contact with this sport.
Photo: Kirsten Bruhn swimming, Markus Rehm jumping

Kirsten Bruhn and Markus Rehm agree in many items concerning inclusion and competitive sports - also in regard to the role of the media; © private / Ralf Kuckuck, DBS-Akademie

Changing the basic understanding of disability

How can competitive sports become more inclusive in the future? Kirsten Bruhn primarily sees a need in training for coaches. Here a direct approach is needed to better prepare for inclusion issues. She also believes that early education and early detection need to receive a bigger focus and the state should also offer assistance.

Bruhn also points out that the media, in particular, play a big and important role and decisively shape the public image of disabled sports. "The media are getting children excited about sports and thus ensure budding young talents," Bruhn is convinced.

Bruhn and Rehm agree that above all the basic understanding of disability needs to change in Germany to break down reservations, among other things.

In addition, Rehm points out that the level of performance in Paralympic sports is continuously increasing and more and more world records are being set. "The conditions are gradually improving and therefore also the performance," says Rehm. "Athletes with disabilities receive more and more recognition; we have come relatively far in this case. But there is definitely still lots of room for improvement. Ultimately, our whole society benefits from a changed image of disability."
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(Translated by Elena O'Meara.)