Unfair Advantage?

Disabled Long Jumper Rehm Waits for IAAF Ruling on Championship Eligibility

Leichtathletik-DM in Ulm
German champion long-jumper Markus Rehm competes in the German Athletics Championships, July 26, 2014.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Disabled athlete, Markus Rehm, has just become a German champion among non-disabled athletes. The long jumper has qualified to compete in the European Athletics Championship in August, but first the International Association of Athletics Federations has to rule on his eligibility.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Markus Rehm, an amputee long jumper who wears a prosthetic limb, has won the German Championships, competing against non-disabled athletes.
    • The IAAF is to rule on whether he should be allowed to compete at the European Championships.
    • They will base the decision on an analysis of his jumps, which looks at whether the limb constitutes a form of performance enhancement.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Markus Rehm emitted a loud yell, and then the long jumper hugged his coach, Steffi Nerius. She was just as flabbergasted as he was about the number that had just appeared on the display board: 8.24 meters.

Rehm had not only bested his previous world record by 29 centimeters, but he had also exceeded the qualifying threshold for the European Championships by 19 centimeters. But the quantum leap now presents officials at the German Athletics Association with a new problem. Mr. Rehm, an amputee, jumps with a spring-like prosthesis on his right leg, and the question is whether it provides him with an unfair advantage.

Officials are currently awaiting the results of an analysis, which will determine whether Mr. Rehm will qualify for the European Championships in Zurich next month. Experts are focusing on the long jumper’s approach velocity, which some note is too slow to achieve such a long distance and indicates he got help from the prosthesis.

Shortly after the amputee’s win, the national athletics association,  known by its German acronym DLV, said it would shift the responsibility for the decision of whether Mr. Rehm can participate at the European Championships or not. It said the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, would have to make that call.

An IAAF spokesman told Handelsblatt Global Edition that the group’s technical experts will address Mr. Rehm’s eligibility, but they have been preoccupied with the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon and have been traveling since Mr. Rehm’s win last Sunday.

The DLV had previously approved his qualification for the German Championships, which took place last weekend in the southern city of Ulm, by with reservations. After Mr. Rehm’s win, the association faced the question of whether it should also nominate Mr. Rehm for the European Championships – and whether the European umbrella organization will even accept the nomination.

Before the Ulm contest Mr. Rehm, a native of the western German city of Leverkusen, had believed that increasing his best performance by 10 centimeters was realistic.

“I surprised myself at how far I jumped today,” Rehm said. The result in Ulm would, under normal circumstances, be enough to qualify for the European Championships. He described his 8.24-meter jump as perfect, one of those jumps an athlete might achieve only once in his entire career. The competition fell short of that distance, which Mr. Rehm had achieved in the fourth round. Second-place jumper Christian Reif, the 2010 European champion, jumped across the eight-meter mark in all six attempts, but even that wasn’t enough to beat Mr. Rehm.

A prosthetic limb, an unfair advantage?

 Before the event, there had been much speculation over how the 10,000 spectators and the other jumpers would react to the 25-year-old amputee. Some would describe his prosthesis as a form of technological performance enhancement, and as an unfair advantage over jumpers with two legs made of flesh and blood. But the crowd in Ulm welcomed him with warm applause, almost more enthusiastic than the applause for Mr. Reif and Sebastian Bayer, also a former European champion. Mr. Rehm had made sports history as the first disabled athlete to compete in the championship for non-disabled athletes.

“I surprised myself at how far I jumped today”

Markus Rehm, German Champion Long Jumper

But the DLV isn’t quite as enthusiastic, despite the fact that a 2012 decision to bar athletes with prostheses from the competition was overturned last year. “As an association, we feel committed to inclusion, but we also have to represent the interests of the non-disabled,” DLV President Clemens Prokop announced in January, after Mr. Rehm had defeated non-disabled athletes for the first time. According to Mr. Prokop, the fundamental question is whether the performance of athletes in the two groups is comparable. A study was commissioned to clear up the issue. In Ulm, bio-mechanists carefully scrutinized Mr. Rehm’s approach velocity, his takeoff pressure and his takeoff angle. The outcome of the study is as yet unknown.

Approach velocity too low?

But why did they wait until the championships? Why not perform the analysis earlier? “Well, the DLV was a little asleep at the wheel,” long jump national trainer Uwe Florczak concedes. “We should have examined whether the prosthesis is an additional tool prior to the championships.” Chief trainer Cheick-Idriss Gonschinska disagreed, saying this isn’t the right way to put it. Instead, he explained, the scope of the necessary analyses only highlighted the complexity of the performance. Mr. Rehm himself reinforced his message, saying that these types of tests aren’t easy and require preparation.

One of the key parameters is approach velocity. Many experts believe that a long jumper has to be able to run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds to jump eight meters. Mr. Rehm’s personal sprint record is 11.46 seconds, and his approach velocity isn’t much faster than that of the best female long jumpers, which leads critics to attribute his long jumps exclusively to the springiness of his carbon-fiber prosthesis. Mr. Florczak said that in his 28 years as trainer, he had never seen someone with such a low approach velocity achieve such a long jump. “But this is all just superficial knowledge,” he hastened to add, noting that he had great respect for Mr. Rehm’s achievement and for the way he copes with his disability.

The jury is still out. Mr. Rehm himself is probably more anxious than anyone else to see the final report, so that he can set aside all doubts. “No athlete can be pleased to hear that he may have achieved his performance under unfair conditions,” he said.

Translated by Christopher Sultan

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