When a supporter of Tonya Harding attacked Olympic skating rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994, clubbing Kerrigan’s right knee and leaving her writhing in pain, the legal system sprang to the victim’s defense. The attacker was caught and punished for his disgraceful attempt to eliminate a superior competitor through brute force.

But now, seven years later, as golfer Casey Martin appears before the Supreme Court asking approval for his own forced elimination of superior rivals, the legal system appears poised to punish the victims and reward the attacker. This sad reversal is made possible by a federal statute that penalizes ability in the name of helping the disabled.

Casey Martin is a talented golfer whose rare circulation disorder prevents him from walking the length of a golf course. This handicap disqualifies him from competing in events run by the PGA Tour, a private organization whose rules require each athlete to walk from shot to shot.

Golf is a game of extreme precision. Tiny variations in the swing of a club determine whether a shot lands on the green or in a sand trap, whether a tricky putt falls in or rims out. Only golfers with great stamina can maintain this precise control while fighting the fatigue that sets in after walking many miles, sometimes over rough terrain, and standing for many hours. The PGA’s rules require and reward such stamina.

But instead of gracefully accepting his inability to beat able-bodied opponents under the rules of an organization he voluntarily joined, Martin chose to force his way into PGA competition by invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law requiring “reasonable modifications” to accommodate the handicapped. At Martin’s request, a federal court forced the PGA Tour to change its rules and let Martin ride in a motorized cart, while everyone else walked.

If the Supreme Court rules in Martin’s favor, as seems likely, it will probably not even pause to identify the innocent victims of such a decision. The first victim is the PGA Tour, which should have an absolute right to set its own rules for its own tournaments. The next victims are the spectators, who want to see professional golf played at its highest level, in PGA competitions winnable only by the ablest athletes.

And there is yet another victim, nameless but equally deserving of sympathy — the able-bodied golfer who is cut from the tournament to make room for Martin, and who is expected to pick up his broken dreams and go quietly home. No newspaper photographs will show the pain in this man’s face, the way they showed Nancy Kerrigan’s anguish after she was assaulted, but one can imagine his torment at the injustice of being penalized simply for having abilities that another man lacks.

The legal and moral principles at stake here extend far beyond the realm of spectator sports.

Under the ADA, which was designed by disability advocates who resentfully describe healthy people as “temporarily abled,” no employers may simply fire disabled employees — or even hire able ones — so long as “reasonable accommodations” might help the handicapped compete. The list of bureaucratically required accommodations, from wheelchair ramps to sign-language interpreters, is endless — and all at the employer’s expense.

In a recent case, a Pennsylvania elementary school fired a psychotic secretary who missed deadlines, forgot to deliver messages, and couldn’t cope with rearranged furniture. When she sued under the ADA, a federal court ruled that instead of firing her, the school should have engaged in an “informal interactive process” to identify “reasonable accommodations” — such as slowing down the rate of change in the office.

The ADA’s backers count on decent people to support the statute as a sympathetic expression of benevolence. But genuine benevolence toward the disabled is possible only through voluntary good will; it cannot be achieved by coercion, which results in punishing the able.

This last point would be more obvious if the government were simply handing Casey Martin a baseball bat and letting him take a swing at Tiger Woods’s knee. Yet the ADA achieves the same end through government force, penalizing mentally and physically superior candidates by making it illegal for employers and other organizations to prefer them over the disabled.

In a rational society, everyone’s life and happiness depend upon finding and rewarding the very best people — the best athletes, the best teachers, the best surgeons. To recognize this simple fact is to see why the Americans with Disabilities Act must be repealed — and why Casey Martin deserves to lose his case.