JOHANNESBURG–Oscar Pistorius’ first few strides are confident, if clumsy. Unlike the runners that often surround him, who start a race hunched over, powering through the “drive” phase of their sprints, Pistorius pops almost straight up. His hips turn over quickly, slamming his carbon fiber prosthetic legs into the track and propelling him forward, often past able-bodied competition. This makes his starts slow, but his races thrilling.
Despite a disappointing showing at the African Championships in Benin, Pistorius, 25, was hand-selected by South African sports officials to run in both the individual 400-meters and the 4×400-meter relay at the London Olympics. He will be the first amputee to run in any track event at any games.
“Today is truly one of the proudest days of my life,” Pistorius said. “I am so pleased that years of hard work, determination and sacrifice have all come together.”
Pistorius doesn’t remember ever having legs. Confronted with a child born without fibulas, his parents agreed to have the 11-month-old boy’s legs amputated below the knee. Two months later, he was fitted with his first prostheses. He has been moving around on some form of artificial legs ever since.
Pistorius started to garner attention for his on-the-track talent from an early age. At 17 he was smashing Paralympic records in the 100m, 200m and 400m. His times began to be on par with world-class athletes, even those without disabilities.
Some of Pistorius’ competitors thought his speed came from his Cheetahs, that his prostheses gave him an unfair advantage. Track officials took notice.
A 2007 ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s world governing body, bared runners with the specially designed prosthetics from running against able-bodied competition. They cited a video of Pistorius running, saying his Cheetahs helped him bounce rather than push of the ground, requiring less energy for him to move down a track.
At the time Elio Locatelli of the IAAF recommended Pistorius focus on the Paralympics. “It affects the purity of sport,” Locatelli told the New York Times at the time. “Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”
The ruling thwarted Pistorius’ hopes to represent South Africa at the 2008 Beijing Games.
After a series of studies by researchers at MIT, the IAAF’s ban was overturned. The experts dismissed the claim that Pistorius’ Cheetahs give him an unfair advantage by acting like a spring. “A natural human leg is itself a spring” the paper said. Not only that, but a human leg is much more efficient than Pistorius’ Cheetahs, returning much more energy than its synthetic counterpart.
Pistorius’ inclusion instantly makes him the country’s biggest draw at this year’s Olympics. It also sets the stage for one of the most thrilling three minutes in sports this summer. The 4×400m final is shaping up to be one of the greatest races in history. Pistorius will be part of the South African squad, ranked No. 2 in the world. The top-ranked American relay team will be the South African’s stiffest completion. The stacked field may also include a Kenyan team with world record holder at 800m, David Rusha, and a Jamaican team anchored by the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt.
Photo: Oscar Pistorius