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.
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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.”
Pistorius has won four Paralympic gold medals. But his quest to run against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics was long and complicated, involving scientists and lawyers. In the purest sport, it wasn’t just a question of whether he was fast enough, but whether his blades gave him an advantage. The Oscar Pistorius case became — and continues to be — a debate about fair play and the right to compete.
Dr. Robert Gailey is a University of Miami physical therapy professor and scientist who has worked with hundreds of amputee athletes and with Pistorius since he was a 17-year-old rugby-player-turned-sprinter using clunky old prosthetics. Gailey has been instrumental in Pistorius’ development and in his successful appeal of a ban by track’s governing body, the IAAF.
“He really has no advantage,” Gailey said. “He has a disadvantage. The major power generator for an able-bodied 400-meter runner is his ankles. Oscar doesn’t have ankles.”
Pistorius generates power from his hips, because he has lived his whole life that way. He is hindered at the start because he cannot jump from the blocks; he has to pull out. Able-bodied sprinters can keep their bodies low and wind resistant for the first 30meters. Pistorius pops up on his toes. In the turns, able-bodied athletes can drive off their outside foot. But Pistorius’ feet have no side-to-side motion. He has to keep his balance. Nor does he have a longer stride length, as the IAAF argued in a study that Gailey debunked.
Gailey’s research showed that able-bodied athletes get a 250 percent energy return when they’re sprinting compared with 80 percent for Pistorius.
At first, the IAAF welcomed the Pistorius spectacle and feel-good story. But as his times improved, the IAAF got nervous. What if he opened a Pandora’s box and all sorts of athletes with disabilities clamored to compete? What if it became doping by custom-constructed artificial limbs? Science could make sports unrecognizable — in fact it already has if you compare today’s Olympics to those of ancient Greece.
“But that’s the future,” Grenada’s Kirani James said after running his 400. “I see Oscar as another athlete, another competitor and, most importantly, as another person. We should respect and admire him.”
Pistorius’ fellow runners, whose own Olympic races were ignored, put it plainly.
“I’ve seen him throw up during practice like anybody else,” Dominica’s Erison Hurtault said. “There are guys out there who take drugs, so he’s the least of my worries.”
Said Florida’s Tony McQuay: “It’s not like he set a world record the first day he ran. He has a great heart. He’s working hard, just like the rest of us.”
Just like the rest of us. Pistorius is redefining “normal,” whatever that means. It’s an evolving, expanding notion.
Gailey has witnessed the transformation.
“The guys who came home from Vietnam were told, ‘Pick a wheelchair,’ ” said Gailey, an advisor to the U.S. Department of Defense on its amputee rehab program. “Now, when I visit patients who lost their limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan, I ask them, ‘What did you do before and what do you want to do? Triathlons? Mountain-climbing?’ ”
He recalled a 1984 basketball game between amputees.
“A kid came off the court, removed his leg and his stump was a bloody mess,” Gailey said. “I told him he couldn’t go back in. He said, ‘Dude, we’re down four points,’ cleaned himself up and went back out like any other athlete.”
Gailey knows that thousands of people with limb loss have been inspired by Pistorius’ no-limits imagination. He wanted to run. So he put on his legs and ran.