Oscar Pistorius is easy to root for
LONDON -- After all the races, court battles, controversy and, most importantly, hard years of training, Oscar Pistorius finally placed his prosthetic legs into Olympics starting blocks Saturday morning and he couldn't help but smile. He wasn't alone. Nearly everyone in the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium was beaming so much, you needed sunglasses.
"I heard one guy yell at me, 'You sexy beauty!'" Pistorius said with a laugh.
Not exactly the words I would use, but the sight of Pistorius in an Olympic race was a beautiful thing. How can anyone not stand up and cheer for him? How could anyone seriously oppose his participation in the Olympics? How can his saga be viewed as anything but a dramatic and inspiring story?
I mean, running with carbon-fiber blades is not like steroids or doping. This is not going to become the next performance-enhancer athletes will use to cheat.
"Exactly,'' Jeffrey Kessler said. "No one is going to say, 'I'm going to make myself a double amputee so I can compete with carbon-fiber prosthetics.'''
Kessler is the New York lawyer who represented Pistorius in the South African sprinter's appeal to run in the Olympics and other world events after the IAAF initially banned him from such competitions because it decided his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage. Pistorius' appeal was heard by three arbitrators, one appointed by Pistorius, one by the IAAF and one independent. The scientific evidence presented in his appeal was so overwhelming that even the IAAF rep sided with Pistorius. The blades do not provide an advantage, and he can run at the Olympics just like everyone else who is fast enough.
"The blades are far less advanced than the prosthetic leg I'm wearing now,'' Pistorius said this week while dressed in street clothes at a press conference. "In track and field you use shoes that are constantly developing, you use poles, you use so many pieces of apparatus. My prosthetics are not a customized device.
"The facts are this type of prosthetic leg has been used long before I was around and is still being used by other Paralympic athletes. If it was as much a technologically advanced piece of equipment that many people claim it is, then why isn't everyone running even close to the times I'm running?''
It all culminated Saturday, when he ran the first heat of the 400. "It's very difficult separating the occasion from the race," he said. "You get so much energy from the crowd. You hear athletes saying the track is quick. The track is fast, but the crowd is what's making it that much more enjoyable. You draw love from the crowd. Just being here is a tremendous experience.
"But I've always said that it's one thing being here, it's another thing performing, and that's the task I take very seriously. I want to represent my country well and I wanted to make the semifinal."
Pistorius did that by finishing second in his heat, but he will not win the 400. His personal best of 45.07 is more than a second slower than 2008 gold medalist LaShawn Merritt (who is out of the Games after pulling up in prelims) and his heat time of 45.44 Saturday was the day's 16th best.
He could, however, medal in the 4x400 relay. South Africa finished second in the relay in last summer's world championships, though Pistorius did not run the final (which he was not happy about).
Medal or not, the most important thing is that he is running and proving to the world that anything is possible, even running in the Olympics without legs. Pistorius is the greatest feel-good story of the Games. Watching him soar around the track is inspiring.
Pistorius was born without the fibula bones in his lower legs, which rendered them useless. Doctors advised his parents to amputate them below the knee so that he would develop naturally with prosthetics. They agreed and Pistorius adjusted. "I grew up competing against kids in my school and neighborhood. I never saw a difference between disability and ability. I just played sports.''
He started running competitively after a knee injury in rugby. He ran his first meet in 2004, and his time of 11.72 broke the existing Paralympic record by half a second. He no longer runs the 100 outside of Paralympic competition because the prosthetics' blades are a significant disadvantage pushing out of the starting blocks.
"The one important thing you have to look at is a net advantage or a net disadvantage,'' he said. "People say I don't have a lower limb, so I have less weight. Yes, but I don't have that blood in that leg, so I have less blood. I don't have a tendon running through that leg from ankle to knee. I think often there is a lot of debate about the advantages, but there isn't much said about the disadvantages.
"At end of the day, we run a distance of 400 meters. You have to get your body over that distance. Even if I look different visually, I still have to use my muscles, I still have to train, I still have to sacrifice. In order for me to travel that distance, I have to work extremely hard.''
Pistorius recalls something his mother, Sheila, once told him and his brother, Carl, when they were growing up. "She said, 'Carl, you put on your shoes and Oscar you put on your prosthetics, 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.''
And that's really all they are. Just different shoes. It's the man who runs with them who's important.
"He's out here running the same way we're out here running,"' said U.S. 400 runner Bryshon Nellum said. "We're all human."
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