Oscar Pistorius laughs when asked how he feels about being called “the fastest man on no legs” and “Bladerunner”. Right now he has bigger things on his mind – like the Olympics.
This week, one of the most phenomenal athletes ever will go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a bid to overturn the International Association of Athletics Federation’s decision to prevent him from running at the Beijing Olympics.
But who is Pistorius? And how did it all come down to this two-day decision that would rock the very foundations of Ancient Greece if the ruling allows a disabled athlete to compete in the able-bodied Olympics?
Pistorius was born without fibulas – the long, thin outer bone between the knee and ankle – and was 11 months old when his legs were amputated below the knee.
But the South African explains that the support from his parents made growing up without legs seem the most normal thing to do.
“Growing up with a disability wasn’t difficult because my parents never treated me any differently to my brother and sister,” says Pistorius. “They never shielded me from growing up.
“They made me feel that whatever I put my mind to, I could achieve and if I didn’t achieve something the first time, I should keep on trying.
“I was put in an able-bodied school and they said there was no reason that I shouldn’t attend one. They kinda threw me in the deep end, but it was all these things that helped me
Pistorius was active growing up, joining his brother and sister to play tennis, surf and go-kart. It was this love of sports that led him into running – quite accidentally.
“From a young age I played a lot of sports such as football, tennis, cricket and even boxing for a certain period,” says the 21-year old.
“When I was a teenager, I started playing waterpolo and rugby and that’s how I got into athletics. I suffered a serious knee injury during a tackle in a rugby game in 2003 and I needed to run to rehabilitate.”
From then on there was no looking back for Pistorius, who refuses to see himself as disabled: “The motto I live my life by is: ‘you’re not disabled by your disabilities, you’re able by your abilities’ – if you have one or two disabilities there are so many more abilities that can overshadow those disabilities,” explains Pistorius.
“If I look at my situation, I may not have a leg but at the end of the day, I have so many abilities that make me more able-bodied than I’ll ever be disabled.”
In 2004, his talent was obvious and he was selected for the South Africa team for the Athens Paralympics. After only eight months running competitively on his Cheetah “Blades” – prosthetic limbs that are manufactured specially in Iceland – he became the star of the Games aged only 17, winning gold in the 200 metres and bronze in the 100 metres.
The next year, he finished sixth in the able-bodied 400 metres at the South African National Championships and last year in March, he took second place in the same race. Pistorius then launched his bid to become the first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics.
“The day I won the gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Athens was the most amazing day in my life. It was my first major international competition and I won my first big gold medal,” says the athlete, who went on to set world records in the 100-metre, 200m and 400m in Paralympics meets.
“Coming second in the able-bodied races in South Africa was also an amazing moment for me,” he said. After initial concern, the IAAF conceded and invited Pistorius to compete at able-bodied meets in Sheffield and Rome to observe whether his “Blades” gave him any extra advantage over able-bodied runners.
The South African finished second in a B race in 46.90 seconds at the Golden League meet in Rome on July 13 and, two days later, was disqualified for running out of his lane in Sheffield in wet conditions. The IAAF then decided to send him to Cologne to see German Professor Gert-Peter Brueggemann, who was to find out to what extent the J-shaped carbon-fibre extensions to his amputated legs differed from the legs of fully able runners.
Painfully for Pistorius, after two days of testing, Brueggemann found that Pistorius was able to run at the same speed as able-bodied runners on about a quarter less energy. He found that once the runners hit a certain stride, athletes with artificial limbs needed less additional energy than other athletes.
The professor said the returned energy from the prosthetic blade is close to three times higher than with the human ankle joint in maximum sprinting.
The IAAF had adopted a rule last summer prohibiting the use of any technical aids deemed to give an athlete an advantage, and sadly for Pistorius, his Olympic dream seemed to be over.
But the Johannesburg-born athlete has been brought up not to accept defeat. Pistorius called for independent tests and provided his own results.
He promised he would appeal the case to the highest court possible – which is what will happen this week in Lausanne.
“If the blades give an advantage, why are the other Paralympic athletes not running the times I am achieving?” questions Pistorius.
“I don’t know what the motives are for the IAAF making the decisions they did, but next week, things are going to unravel and I hope for a better outcome. I think there is a lot of discrimination against disabled people and I don’t think all the variables were considered.”
One more obstacle Pistorius will have to overcome if he goes on to win his case is that he still needs to run the qualification time for the Olympics, and he admits it worries him.
“It definitely worries me. I missed all the South African races this year and I haven’t even been running at the pace I am supposed to be – you have to be running against good opposition to be able to achieve these times,” says Pistorius.
So how fast can he run?
“In order to run the times you have to run against guys who are pulling you to run those times, you can’t just run fast times by yourself,” explains the athlete.
“It’s a very mental thing, you have to be running against guys next to you running at good speeds. You will often see if top performers are running against slower guys they will never achieve their top speeds, but if they are running against guys at their own level, then they can get better times.”
Pistorius has achieved immense popularity over the years and when he was invited on the Good Morning America show last year, viewing figures were recorded at 97 million.
He is a story straight out of Hollywood and not surprisingly, Tom Hanks’ production company is planning to make a movie about him.
“It won’t happen soon, something like that will take time and effort to do and now I can’t afford to take time off, especially this year with the Olympic training,” reveals Pistorius.
There will be a huge amount of interest come Wednesday in Switzerland. It will be a decision that could change sport as we know it, or one that ends a dream.
“Oh and I’m not concerned about nicknames or what people call me,” reveals Pistorius finally.