The view from high in the athletics stadium shows tiny figures moving on an orange track; the Italian voice-over welcomes TV viewers to the 2007 Golden Gala meeting in Rome. Suddenly the screen fills with a close-up of two strange, curved, shiny objects. Blades. They are South African paraplegic sprinter Oscar Pistorius's "legs". The visual effect is startling. The viewer is left in no doubt that these carbon-fibre artificial limbs are the main event at this gathering. The blades seem like alien energy sources; as menacing as unsheathed scimitars. The sense of otherworldliness grows when one sees that the other athletes have normal legs.
Nonetheless, the rational mind informs us that these are artificial pegs that cannot match a complex and dynamic interaction of sinew, blood vessel and muscle. The idea is strengthened when the starter says "On your marks", and Pistorius is ungainly as he crouches in his lane. The gun sounds and he thrusts forward; but he's slower than the rest of the field, taking shorter strides, looking unbalanced. He's in an outside lane of the staggered start of the 400-metre event and soon all his rivals have caught and passed him. It's no contest and sympathy wells in the onlooker.
Then something happens. Pistorius seems to steady himself, push out his chest, gather all bodily power into his solar plexus and ram it down into his hips and thighs, defying fate and spurning pity. And he takes off. It is amazing to watch. "Blade Runner" starts overtaking runners down the stretch, one by one, then hurls himself at the finishing line. Second. Achieving silver at a European Golden League athletics meeting is a notable achievement for anyone, let alone a disabled runner. The video of the race - titled The Fastest Thing on No Legs - fast became a YouTube favourite. Everyone was agog.
Well, not quite everyone. Some able-bodied athletes didn't like the look of those blades from behind. And international athletics officials were worried. How can a man with no legs run as fast as top able-bodied athletes? What would happen if this guy won a major race, an Olympic medal?
Legalistic minds started whirring and honed in on the weapons of "crime" - those gleaming blades, officially known as Ossur Cheetahs. Biokinetic testing was ordered, and the artificial legs were deemed to give Oscar Pistorius an advantage. He was banned from running against people with no physical disability. The irony had a black humour to it.
Oscar Pistorius was born to Henke and Sheila Pistorius in Johannesburg in 1986 and attended Constantia Kloof Primary School. He was, by all accounts, a normal, happy child, if anything more cheerful and exuberant than most. The fact that he'd been born without fibula bones and had his legs amputated below the knees at the age of 11 months seemed to have had little adverse effect on his sunny personality. He handled the curiosity and childish cruelty of his peers with remarkable equanimity.
An anecdote told by his grandmother illustrates the child's upbeat attitude. When the nine-year-old was fitted with new prosthetics, with toes on them for the first time, he arrived to visit her, leaning from the car window, waving the legs in the air and yelling ''Look at my toes.'' But even as a boy, steely determination was evident. In an interview, father Henke said he always knew his son could succeed in anything he put his mind to. When he reached his teens, Pistorius chose to become a boarder at Pretoria Boys High School, about 50 kilometres from home. He took to sports in a big way, acknowledging no barrier to participation. He tried everything, but it was the rough and tumble of rugby that he enjoyed most, and the game played a fateful role. In 2003, he tore ligaments in his left knee during a game and was sent to the University of Pretoria's High Performance Centre for rehabilitation with coach Ampie Louw. The exercises included sprints, and his therapist immediately spotted singular speed.
After just six months of athletics training, Pistorius was deemed competitive enough to travel to a United States paraplegic athletics meeting. There he caused a sensation by beating 11-times world champion sprinter, Brian Frasure, in the 200-metres event. Three months later, in September 2004, Pistorius won a gold medal and broke a world record in Athens at the Paralympic Games.
World championship medals were a formality, and these days Pistorius is in a class of his own in paraplegic sprinting. The 400-metres is his best event, but he also dominates in the 200-metres and 100-metres. But he's quick to point out that 95 percent of his racing to date has been against able-bodied athletes. In 2005, he dared to line up in the South African open athletics championships - and finished sixth in the final. In the 2007 renewal he won the silver medal.
International competition in open company was the obvious next step, which is how that fateful televised race in Rome came about. On the back of that, he ran in another top meeting in Sheffield, England, where he finished last. He has no excuses, just points out that the field included the top four able-bodied 400-metre runners in the world currently, including Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner. The race was "a great stepping stone" and "the sort of challenge I want". He'll be better, faster, next time. But there might not be a next time.
When it became clear that Oscar Pistorius's ultimate target was to compete in the Olympic Games, alarm bells rang.
Concern was voiced that his blades actually propelled him faster than flesh-and-blood legs would. Athletes who'd spent years preparing to win an Olympic medal started imagining the "snick, snick, snick" sound of Pistorius's Cheetahs was actually a giant pair of scissors snipping away at their dreams. Officials feared recriminations - and lawsuits. Arguments against Pistorius's participation in open company are that he doesn't have calf muscles, which tire markedly towards the end of a long sprint. Also, it is difficult to equate the length of Cheetahs to a human leg and they could give a longer stride than a normal leg. And then there is the perceived "spring effect". The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered scientific testing of Pistorius and his blades. This was done in Germany in late 2007, and shortly thereafter the IAAF said all paraplegic runners could no longer participate in its able-bodied events.
The culprits - the Cheetahs - are manufactured by Icelandic firm Ossur, which has been in the prosthetics business for more than 30 years. They are very different from modern "walking" legs that have mechanical joints and microprocessors to operate them. These carbon-fibre swoops are simple and graceful, like a cat's back legs, and withstand enormous tensions. Pistorius helped Ossur's technicians refine the blades to their present excellence - destroying prototypes along the way - and they are now used by all the world's leading disabled runners. Pretoria University's High Performance Sports Centre is a riot of activity and sound during orientation week. This is where Oscar Pistorius has chosen to be interviewed; a place where he's comfortable. It's where his athletic potential was discovered and where he now trains.
He smiles at the youthful throng and murmurs approvingly of the hordes of pretty girls. In the coffee shop he orders tuna mayonnaise on brown bread - not much mayo, no chips, training for the Olympics.
In this setting, Pistorius looks like just another student, not someone at the centre of an international athletics rumpus. There's no hint of a limp, or the artificial legs in his faded jeans, as he saunters down the concourse. He's a celebrity here; people hail him with a star-struck look in their eyes. Young women go out of their way to say hello and get noticed. But the casual look, the polite and friendly demeanour, belie a very determined man on a serious mission.
Pistorius has just returned from Europe where he met lawyers and media representatives. These people will be critical to his challenge to the IAAF's ban on him competing in open athletics events. He has lodged an appeal against the IAAF ruling with the international Court of Arbitration for Sport and is being backed by Brian Frasure, the American athlete whose world record he broke. They fly the flag for all paraplegic athletes around the world now affected by the ban. Key to the appeal is a conviction that the IAAF's testing was scientifically flawed and that evidence from more comprehensive biokinetic measurements shows that the blades confer no advantage. On Pistorius's side are leading American biokineticists Hugh Herr, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Robert Gailey, of the University of Miami. But so far the views of these scientists have failed to sway the IAAF.
The appeal court date was set for April 28-30, 2008. Regardless of the outcome (not known at the time of going to print) Pistorius has accepted that the slow turning of justice's wheels means he will probably not have enough time to qualify for this year's Beijing Olympics. The last chance to qualify for the South African Olympic team was mid-April. Even then there is the small matter of him running a time fast enough to gain automatic entry to the Games. At present his best 400-metre time is 46.3 seconds and Olympic qualifying is 45.5 seconds. He is confident he can go that low - but probably not without the open competition from which he is currently barred. Now the appeal has become about winning the right to compete at the London Olympics in 2012.
In the meantime, the first goal is the Paralympic Games in Beijing in August - for which he is training like a demon. "It's going to be huge," he observes, counting off gold medals - and world records - in 100, 200 and 400 metres as the target.
Ampie Louw is an archetypal athletics coach. He could be a character from a South African Chariots of Fire with his grounded Afrikaner sensibilities. In his 30 years of training athletes, he's seldom seen a born champion like Pistorius. ''He doesn't settle for second best and has a total will to win.'' Then there's Pistorius's determination, and his maturity. ''I met him when he was 17, but he was already a grown-up,''
Louw muses. A typical training day sees Pistorius rising at 6am or 7am, after eight or nine hours of sleep at his Pretoria home. He has breakfast (which is approved by his nutritionist) and then heads for the High Performance Centre - a 15-minute journey on his Honda CBR superbike. Gym work, principally strength training, lasts until 11am. Then there are "commitments" - like media interviews and meetings with sponsors and clients. There is a long list of sponsors to cater for - from Chevron Oil, Nike and Oakley to Nedbank, Volvo, Nashua and others.
There are frequent consultations with Team Oscar - agent, physiotherapist, dietician, biokineticist, strength trainer, psychologist . . . Actual running only starts at 3.30pm: hours of track work aimed at improving speed and stamina. At 6pm it's back to the gym for half an hour of cycling to ''warm down'' and burn off lingering calories in the system. Keeping weight off is as important as eating enough to fuel the training.
Then he relaxes for a couple of hours. Or goes jolling. Coach Ampie Louw told Wired magazine that the biggest obstacle in the way of Pistorius's ambitions was his hectic social life. A wide circle of friends - from Springbok rugby player Pierre Spies to varsity nerds - doesn't preclude him from finding time for his family, with whom he has always been close. His father Henke, who once ran a family business, now lives in St Francis. His mother, Sheila, died six years ago from an allergic reaction to medication.
Pistorius credits much of his positive life philosophy to the influence of his parents. His father taught him that whatever he did he should do to the best of his ability, while his mother instilled in him an abiding belief in that very ability. ''There is nothing an able-bodied person can do that I can't do,'' he says with offhand certainty. His father still provides support, and Pistorius says he draws strength from his memory of his mother's wisdom in every race he runs.
Then there are his siblings, older brother Carl, 23, and Aimée, 18. The trio share a strong bond. "We are completely one in all the things that count in life," Carl confirms. For his part, Carl says his brother is not so much a best friend as his "shadow". "If there is one person who has always got my back it's my boet." Pistorius was a "hooligan" of a younger brother. "And nothing much has changed," laughs Carl, but adds: "He also has a deep side; massive compassion for people."
Among Carl's abiding memories of their childhood is when he and Pistorius - eight and six at the time - undertook a marathon swim across a lake near the family's holiday home in the former Eastern Transvaal to test out homemade flippers their father had fashioned for the younger Pistorius boy. It was an endurance feat that astonished even the youngsters. He also recalls hilarious moments in which Oscar's artificial legs played a key part in pranks played on unwitting strangers. ''Oscar was always my equal physically. He never sat down, he always came to the party.''
If you want a glimpse of the "fire" that powers the Oscar Pistorius engine, try asking him if he has considered reducing the efficacy of his blades to satisfy the athletics authorities. The response is instantaneous, with a hint of irritation: ''I'm already at a disadvantage. Why should I put myself at more of a disadvantage?'' Retreat is a last resort.
It has been said that Oscar Pistorius is forcing the world to rethink what it means to be disabled. He's not about to let up on that now.
The Olympic 400-metre qualifying time of 45.5 seconds would be a personal best for Pistorius, but it would probably only get him into the second round of heats at the Games, nowhere near a final, where the winner will clock around 43 seconds. So is the "Blade Runner" any real threat to potential medalists?
Rules are rules and have an inalienable purpose - to ensure fair contest. Nonetheless, it's hard not to wonder whether letting a young man show his worth, his bravery, on the world's greatest athletic stage wouldn't inspire more ordinary people, and better reflect the ethos of true sportsmanship, than all the fair contests in the world.
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