LONDON -- When Oscar Pistorius stepped onto the Olympic Stadium track in his carbon-fiber, silicon-sleeved Flex-Foot Cheetahs he made his own giant leap for mankind.
Pistorius was, in effect, the first sprinter on the moon Saturday when he clack-clack-clacked to the finish line. No double-amputee had ever competed in the Olympics before Pistorius ran to second place in the first heat of the 400 meters.
At first, as Pistorius crouched in the blocks, it was difficult to take your eyes off the Blade Runner’s prosthetic legs. They look like thick, gray scythes, attached at his knees. He has other pairs for everyday use, but these are the legs, worth $50,000, that he carries with him to the track the way you’d carry a laptop to the office.
As the starting gun cracked, everyone present, including Pistorius’ rivals, sensed the significance of the moment. But as he moved around the track, a crowd of 80,000 watching in wonder and incredulity, the focus shifted from his churning blades to his position in the five-man field. He was running a race, simple as that, and trying to win.
Preoccupation with his disability was displaced by appreciation of his ability.
If a guy with no legs can run the quarter mile in 45 seconds at the Olympics, who’s to say what can’t be done?
See him sprint down the home stretch and believe that limitations are a creation of the mind, not a constraint of the body.
See him humbly thanking everyone who got him to London, including his 89-year-old “gran,” and believe that he is the perfect messenger.
“It should not be a burden lining up here but it was difficult to separate the occasion from the race, and they do intertwine,” he said. “I found myself smiling in the starting blocks. Now it’s an hour after the race and I still have goose bumps.
“I didn’t know whether to cry. It was a mix of emotions. To sacrifice for all this is really mind-blowing.”
Mind-blowing, to think that a man born without feet could be standing on the Olympic medal podium as one of the best at a footrace.
Pistorius, 25, a South African from Johannesburg, is not expecting a medal in the 400. His best time of 45.07 is a second slower than the top times. His goal was to advance to Sunday night’s semifinal, which he did in 45.44, putting him 16th among 24 qualifiers. He has a shot at a medal in the 1,600-meter relay, if the South African team trusts him with the baton.
Plenty of skeptics, including world-record-holder Michael Johnson, contend that conflicting evidence on whether Pistorius’ lightweight, high-tech prosthetics help him expend less energy cast doubt on his legitimacy and the tenets of fair play.
But others are drawn to his charismatic smile, not his blades.
“You sexy beauty!” a fan shouted to Pistorius from the stands.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Pistorius’ late mother, Sheila, didn’t think Oscar would be able to walk, let alone run when he was born without fibulas. But after his legs were amputated at 11 months and he was fitted with prosthetics, she decided not to give him special treatment. Pistorius recalled Sheila, whom he described as “a bit hard-core and no-nonsense,” once telling him and his brother, “ ‘Carl, you put on your shoes and Oscar you put on your legs, and that’s the last I want to hear about it.’ I didn’t grow up thinking I had a disability. I grew up thinking I had different shoes.”