Dominic Lawson: We thrill to these deeds. But is it a level playing field?

Oscar Pistorius may have failed to take first place in the Paralympic 200 metres (Section T44); but he wins the gold for hypocrisy. After the double-amputee Brazilian Alan Oliveira beat him to the finishing line, Pistorius complained that the race had not been "fair" because Oliveira's prosthetic attachments were "too long".

Perhaps that's how Usain Bolt's much shorter rivals feel as the 6'5'' Jamaican smoothly pulls away from them with his gigantic strides – but they would be foolish to say so. That is Bolt's innate genetic inheritance, with nothing artificial to aid his performance. Pistorius, however, had blazed his trail with Cheetah Flex-Foot, bespoke constructed prostheses.

He had already outraged the purists by using these things to compete in able-bodied athletics events. No wonder he found it so hard to accept what happened in the Olympic Stadium on Sunday night: Oliveira, from way back, surged past him, boing-boinging along on a different brand of carbon-fibre running blades.

The issue of how to create a level playing field for competitors vexes the whole business of Paralympics. In its glossary of "10 things you need to know" about the event, BBC News declares: "Sport is only fun and competitive if you pit like against like". It is on that principle that the International Paralympics Committee has devised an increasingly convoluted system of classification.

It is easy to see how these Paralympic classifications can themselves be '"gamed". The most notorious example was the Spanish basket ball team in the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, which under the "intellectually disabled" classification won gold. It was later revealed they had faked their mental disability. These games in London are the first to restore "intellectual disability" as an eligible category since that scandal.

Thus Jessica Jane-Applegate, a Briton with Asperger's Syndrome, has just won a gold in the swimming 200 metres freestyle: if I were one of her physically-disabled rivals, I might have felt a tiny bit put out. Why should having Asperger's syndrome necessarily be a disadvantage in such an event? It is often said that Michael Phelps, winner of a record 18 Olympic swimming golds, displays some of that syndrome's symptoms.

Yet these Games are inspiring. The reason is less to do with what is going on in the pool or on the track than with what each athlete had gone through to get there. It is these "back stories" that make the Paralympics. Perhaps its extraordinary popularity – Channel 4 is now clearing its schedules even of The Simpsons to make way for more action – can be put down to its similarity to The X-Factor: like Susan Boyle making people cry by revealing that such a gauche form could produce the voice of an angel.

Similarly, Oscar Pistorius became the world's most popular 400-metre runner, whose appearance on the track causes more excitement in the crowd than that of any of his able-bodied rivals. No wonder he re-emerged around midnight on the day of his debacle to apologise for his rant about "unfairness". Actually, I thought Pistorius had shown just why the most successful Paralympians achieve what they do: they are no less ferociously competitive than any able-bodied champion. If anything, they need to be more so.

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