Oscar Pistorius will be the first double amputee to compete at Olympic Games
South African has already been first to run at World Athletics Championships
His carbon-fiber prosthetic blades were temporarily banned by the IAAF in 2008
The 24-year-old is a multiple gold medal winner at the Paralympics since his 2004 debut
He’s “the fastest man on no legs,” or – as his sponsor’s high-profile advertising campaign put it – “the bullet in the chamber.”
He is Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” who is changing the world’s perception of what is acceptable on an athletics track.
Born without a fibula bone in each leg, the South African is the first double amputee to run at the world championships, and next year he will be the first to race at the Olympics.
“I think next year’s going to be quite a big year, as far as demand on my performances,” the 24-year-old told CNN.
“I feel that the condition I’m in and the knowledge I’ve gained probably will definitely help me in achieving those times in the first half of next season. So I know next year is going to be a big year.”
Pistorius qualified for the 400 meters with a time of 45.07 seconds in Italy in July, which is less than two seconds slower than Michael Johnson’s 1999 world record and would have given him fifth place in the final of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He did not compete at the main event in China. Despite eventually reversing the decision by athletics’ ruling body to ban the carbon-fiber prosthetic blades he uses, the Johannesburg native was unable to meet the qualifying mark.
He did, however, run at the Beijing Paralympics that year, becoming the first athlete to win gold in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
The International Association of Athletics Federations had at first decreed, after a series of tests, that the blades gave Pistorius an unfair advantage.
He overturned that at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and maintains that he will be competing on a level playing field in London next year.
“If the legs did provide such an advantage that some of the people are claiming they did, then there would be a lot more amputees using the exact same prosthetic legs I have, running the exact same times I have – and that’s not the case,” Pistorius said.
He reached the 400m semifinals at the world championships in South Korea in August, and then helped South Africa’s 4x400m relay team reach the final after setting a national record.
However, he is still disappointed at being dropped from the line-up that secured a silver medal – he made way for hurdler LJ van Zyl after running the slowest split time as the lead-off runner.
The IAAF ruled Pistorius had to start out of the blocks, the slowest leg of the relay, “to avoid danger to other athletes.” Runners can come out of their lanes in the other three legs.
“It was very disappointing to me, because I know I worked very hard. I ran the second-fastest time I’ve ever ran in the semifinal on my leg. It’s one of those things, unfortunately,” he said.
“To walk away with a silver medal, although I didn’t run in the final … (it) was bittersweet to watch because I really felt I deserved to be on the team.
“But at the same time the other four guys are very close friends of mine. When they came down that home straight I was losing my voice I was shouting so hard for them. It’s great to be a part of that.”
The runner’s coach Ampie Louw believes Pistorius – who already has lucrative endorsement deals with Nike, Thierry Mugler perfume and Oakley sunglasses – can be a success on the biggest stage.
“He’s a champion, and champions are born. I know it, I’ve almost been going for 40 years in training and I can see it,” Louw told CNN.
“He’s got all the abilities of a champion and we did it gradually. It took us three months to get him out of the starting blocks, because he’s got no feet and no balance to stand still. So we must do a four-point start.
While Pistorius is determined to prove himself against able-bodied athletes, he will also defend his Paralympic titles.
“For me there is always a space for Paralympic sport. I am a very, very proud Paralympian and when I’ve had the platform or the opportunity to educate people about disability I’ve done so without hesitation and I’m very excited for the Paralympics next year,” he said.
“I look at Beijing as one of the highlights of my career. I can’t wait to run in next year’s Games and I still feel there’s a lot of recognition Paralympic athletes deserve that they’re not getting, and I’m really fighting that.”
Despite his difficult start to life, Pistorius was keen on sport from an early age and competed in waterpolo, cricket, tennis, triathlons and Olympic wrestling and boxing before he smashed his knee while playing rugby at the age of 16.
He took up track running as part of his rehabilitation, linking up with Louw.
In his first year he was already running the 100m quicker than the existing Paralympic world record, and in 2004 he came to prominence by winning gold at the Athens Paralympics in a new best time.
By 2005 he had competed against able-bodied athletes for the first time, at the South African Championships, and did so internationally in 2007 before the IAAF intervened.
In February 2009, Pistorius suffered serious head injuries in a boating accident that slowed down his track progress.
“That was fairly difficult for me. It was kind of strange because I was in very good form – and I was in hospital for a couple of weeks and then when I got home I couldn’t train,” he said.
“Through my recovery, it took me probably six to eight weeks where I wasn’t able to train at all. It was just very difficult getting into the swing of things, it was the first season in four or five years that I hadn’t run a personal best, but it was a bit of a learning curve I guess.”
But after a life of overcoming adversity, the setback was just another step in his growth – adding to an attitude best summed up on his website:
“You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”