Blake Leeper was born with no legs, and he’s one of the fastest humans on earth.
That’s an amazing sentence, and Blake Leeper is an amazing athlete who should be celebrated. He should be a welcome face at every competition worldwide, an international star that draws attention and inspires millions.
Leeper, an eight-time Paralympics medalist, qualified to compete against the best able-bodied athletes in the men’s 400-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics, which has been postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19. He’s broken records set by Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner who also raced on blades — but who also later murdered his girlfriend.
Like Pistorius, there were questions about whether Leeper’s prosthetics were actually a competitive advantage. On Oct. 26, the Court of Arbitration for Sport declared a rule imposed by World Athletics (which governs track & field) that put the burden of proof on competitors to show that they do not have a competitive advantage to be invalid.
Sounds like a clear victory for Leeper, right?
It was, but the same Court of Arbitration ruled that Leeper could not compete because he runs at an “unnaturally tall height.” It was the first time in Leeper’s battle for the right to achieve his dream and compete in the Olympics that his height was ever mentioned.
If that sounds like a bunch of B.S. that was made up on the spot, you’re right. But wait, there’s more.
The decision on Leeper’s height was based on guidelines the Paralympics recently adopted based on a study of the body proportions of white and Asian athletes. Africans and people of African descent were not included. It’s a completely unilateral decision, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport is not bound to adhere to Paralympics standards.
“They said, ‘You were running on prosthetic limbs, and we feel that you have an unfair advantage and you have to prove that it’s not,’ Leeper told Deadspin.
“Then when I went to prove it, they said, ‘No, that’s not enough. You’re too tall.’”
World Athletics said the prostheses gave him the legs of a 6-foot-8 man, and that he would be only 5-foot-9 “with biological legs”.
Of note: Leeper’s wingspan is over 6 feet. Wingspan closely correlates with height in able-bodied humans, at approximately a 1-to-1 ratio. That strongly suggests Leeper has the body proportions of a man well over 6 feet tall.
“We were very surprised by how this decision came out,” Jeffrey Kessler, one of a team of lawyers working pro bono for Leeper. “After finding in favor of our claim that the entire rule was discriminatory against the disabled, they then come out of nowhere (to say), ‘But we’re not going to let Blake Leeper run because we think he’s too tall in his prosthetics. We think he’s too tall based on a study of Caucasians in Spain and Japanese men.’
“You tell me if that makes any sense for a Black man.”
Incidentally, Pistorius was also 6-foot-2 in his blades.
“(Blake) runs a little over 6 feet, 2 inches,” Kessler said. “That’s exactly in the range of the elite 400-meter runners.”
Also, breaking news: Being tall doesn’t make you fast.
“Unless you think Manute Bol was really fast,” Kessler quipped.
“My lawyers and I tried to convey,” Leeper said, “just because you’re tall doesn’t mean you’re going to run fast. If my legs were too tall for me, I wouldn’t be able to train the way that I do. Your body wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
Leagues like the NBA, WNBA, and the NFL have had their reckoning with racial injustice, but track and field, a sport dominated by Black athletes, and the Olympics, have not. Blake Leeper may be the case that causes track and field to examine its own problems with race.
“It’s systemic racism, absolutely,” Leeper said. “I grew up in Tennessee, personally I’ve dealt with racism, my brother’s dealt with racism, my parents. My grandparents had to go to separate schools. I know what racism is. These are smart people who made this decision. They didn’t even think to consider to include African-Americans or people of African descent, for that genetic body type. It makes me think that this was done deliberately.
“I’m questioning why isn’t anyone on the board questioning that. Are there any Africans or African-Americans there? For them to come and tell me ‘You’re too tall.’ And the study that they’re basing it on, your race isn’t even included in it? That’s not fair. It’s a slap in the face.
“Does my life not matter? Black lives still matter? We’re fighting this in America, but this is international. Racism is real.”
The next step for Leeper and his lawyers is to appeal to a court in Switzerland and ask that the ruling be struck down for discriminatory reasons. What Blake Leeper really needs now is support and outrage regarding this ridiculous ruling to spread.
“Now that I have this decision, I need people on my side. Big names, I need their voice right now. I’m fighting for my life.”
Assuming the world is a safer place in 2021, there will be Games in Tokyo. And if the world is a better place, Blake Leeper will be there.