By Kevin McCallum 12:08PM BST 22 May 2011
Oscar Pistorius opens the sliding doors of a room in his house in the east of Pretoria, whistles and all hell breaks loose. Pistorius has shown that while two legs may be good, no legs are better for him.
Yet in his house, four legs rule the roost. Twelve legs to be exact, belonging to Capone the Jack Russell, Enzo the bull terrier and Syla the American pitbull. They barge into each other in their haste to get to their owner, a maelstrom of tails, tongues and small whines of happiness.
Pistorius, the fastest man on no legs, has a love of things blessed with power and speed. As he tried to appease the three animals fighting for his attention, he pointed out a set of five pictures of a racehorse. They are of Watchful, one of the horses Pistorius has invested in – and it has been a wise investment.
“That is such a brilliant horse,” said Pistorius. “You get guys who will have been in horse racing for years and they won’t have won a race, yet Watchful has had five wins this year. He’s been awesome.”
Power and speed. If it’s not race horses it’s motor cycles – he owns a rare Valentino Rossi replica Yamaha superbike – or even wild animals.
He owns a pair of white tigers, which are kept at a farm that specialises in the breeding of exotic animals. He occasionally visits them, but they are getting a little too big to be trusted. “When I’ve gone in, I’ve gone with a taser, but I don’t want to take a chance these days because a headline ‘Oscar eaten by tigers’ wouldn’t be too funny,” said Pistorius.
“You can make money from them through breeding. It’s like anything, there’s a market for them. They cost about R350 000 [£32,000] each, which isn’t cheap. When I heard about the farm I initially wanted to buy a King Cheetah, but they didn’t have any.”
Cheetahs are the name of the prosthetic ‘blades’ that Pistorius uses to earn the money to pay for his growing collection of animals – his success has brought him lucrative endorsements for Nike, Oakley and Pirelli, and he has even become the face of a French fragrance.
He first strapped a pair of Cheetahs on to his amputated legs back in June 2004, just a few months before the Athens Paralympics. Initially a reluctant runner who would write false letters from his late mother to the teacher to get out of athletics at school, Pistorius was told to run as part of rehabilitation from a knee injury picked up while playing rugby – using conventional prosthetic legs – for Pretoria Boys High as a 16-year old.
He had been given a ‘hospital pass’ and was hit hard by two “enormous guys” from either side. “I remember a sharp pain and when I looked at my leg after I’d hit the ground it was at a weird angle. My knee was stuffed, and I had to go to rehab for it. That’s where I found out that I wasn’t too bad at this sprinting thing.”
Pistorius went to see Gerry Versfeld, the surgeon who had amputated his two lower limbs when he was 11 months old. His parents, Henke and the late Sheila, had made the decision after Pistorius was born without fibula, a life-changing choice for their middle child. Versfeld was astounded that Pistorius was playing rugby.
He was told he needed to undergo sprint training if he wanted his knee to be right for the 2004 rugby season. He was introduced to Ampie Louw, a coach at the University of Pretoria and began training with him on Jan 1, 2004. It was the beginning of the making of a superstar.
I met Pistorius in Athens for the first time seven years ago, a shy yet confident boy with braces on his teeth who didn’t quite know what to make of the massive attention he was getting from the media.
The Cheetahs he wears means he cannot stand still; they are designed for sprinting, not resting in one spot and they push him forwards all the time so he has to bounce gently from one foot to the other as he talks to you.
In Athens he put his hand on my shoulder to steady himself as we talked about how he had won gold in the 200 metres and just lost out in the 100m. Back then he wasn’t sure how big this thing was going to get, how he would become the global face of disabled sport, an icon for those who refuse to allow their limitations to get in the way of their ambitions.
“It has gone a little crazy,” he laughed. “If I think back to Athens and what I experienced there, to now, a lot has happened in seven years. I’ve had to grow up a lot in a short period of time, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of good media and some bad media, but that’s part of the job, I suppose.
“I’ve experienced some amazing things, met some amazing people, but at the end of it all, I’m just an athlete first and foremost.”
Pistorius will be in action this week at the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester – an event in which he has been unbeaten since it started in 2005. “The Paralympics World Cup is always a great event for me because it’s the first race of the season, it always has a lot of spectators and all of the top athletes attend.
“It’s held in the impressive stadium in Manchester, where the Commonwealth Games were held in 2006. That’s unusual for us because we’re used to being at smaller stadiums. For me it’s about how the Paralympic athletes should be treated.
‘‘The thing I’ve noticed is that the media generally write about the Paralympics in a different way from other sports. Instead of just talking about the athletic achievement, some of them tend to approach it from an almost sociological angle, almost writing it as though you should feel sorry for us.
“I can tell you now that there are no Paralympic athletes out there who want your pity; we want your respect. We are at the top of our field in our particular categories. Some of us are missing arms and legs, some have cerebral palsy and others have sight issues, and as much as that defines us in certain categories, it doesn’t make it any less competitive or our achievements any less worthy.
“Having said that, there are a lot of journalists out there who have been covering the Paralympics for a while now and understand the balance between athletic achievement and the challenges we face. I think the Paralympics have come a long way from when I started.”
Much of the new respect for Paralympic sports stems from Pistorius’s high profile. He was such a superstar in Beijing that after he had won gold in the 100m and 200m they specially moved the 400m to make it the final event of the track programme so as to provide a glittering finale for the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium. He duly won gold.
Pistorius’s battle to be allowed into the able-bodied Olympic Games has been well documented. He initially found favour with the IAAF, as they allowed him entry into their meets, but then held an investigation into whether his Cheetahs would give him an advantage against the able-bodied athletes. He was effectively banned, but a law firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf, took his case on pro bono and represented him at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
When they eventually won Pistorius cried, but then the hard work started as he set about qualifying for the 400m in London 2012. He ran an Olympic ‘B’ qualifying time (45.70sec) in March this year with a personal best of 45.61sec in the South African Provincial Championships in Pretoria.
The knowledge that he can make the Olympic qualifying time, admitted Pistorius, was a massive weight off his shoulders. He is just shy of the ‘A’ qualifying time of 45.25sec, which is his aim. The official qualifying period for the Olympics began on May 1 and, to qualify automatically, Pistorius has either to be the quickest South African with a ‘B’ time or run the ‘A’ standard.
Those are the same qualifying times for the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in September, which are Pistorius’s immediate aim.
“Getting that qualifying time was the best thing in my life,” said Pistorius, “but I’d like to run the ‘A’ time. That’s my goal.”
Pistorius credits his faster times to his weight loss this season. A careful diet, 30-minute saunas after hard gym sessions and discipline have paid off.
“I’ve been grafting my butt off, literally,” said Pistorius as he made us lunch to show off his new, improved diet: organic chicken soup with extra chickpeas, broccoli and one slice of dry wholewheat bread on the side.
“I last weighed 77kg (with the blades) when I was 16. Last year I ran light as I was just under 80kg. I’ve come down gradually in weight since 2006, and I noticed that while I wasn’t running a lot quicker, I was feeling a lot easier in races and I was recovering a lot quicker and not feeling tired after the races.
“I decided to start shedding every bit of excess fat that I could and since January I have been dieting. I’ve come down from 83kg, which is a good winter weight for me. It’s making a huge difference because I recover so much quicker and that helps when you’re training twice a day.
“My body fat is down to 7.9 per cent, and for sprinters between eight and 12 per cent is good. I’m definitely stronger than I was when I was 17, and I ran a 47.3sec. I’m almost two seconds quicker now. I think that if I can drop another kilo then I can be quicker by almost a second.”
Pistorius has had support from Olympians and Paralympians as he seeks to take the next step in his development as a runner. He has a new rival in Jerome Singleton, the American who was born within six months of him, also without a fibula in one leg.
Singleton beat him in the 100m at the Paralympic World Championships this year, his first defeat in seven years of competition. Pistorius had beaten Singleton by three hundredths of a second in Beijing in the 100m. Sadly, Singleton will not be competing in Manchester this week.
“People made such a big thing about that loss,” smiled Pistorius. “Jerome is a really good guy, and we get on, but he also knows that I am always going to struggle in the 100m. It’s not like I always win that race by huge margins. I keep an eye on him.
“Ampie and I have files on all the guys I run against, both disabled and able-bodied. Jerome is a bright boy, he’s an actual rocket scientist with a degree in quantum physics. We email each other and have a good relationship.
“I get on with most of the Paralympic guys, and the guys I run against in the IAAF races. I get tweets of support from people. Like Linford Christie put out a tweet after I qualified to say: ‘Oscar Pistorius ran 45.61 for 400m. Be inspired.’ That was a great thing for him to do.”
Pistorius will base himself in Italy for the season as he races in IAAF meets and seeks to keep chipping away at his personal best for the 400m. He has no peers in the Paralympic 400m competition, and in South Africa he is the fastest 400m in the able-bodied category having seen off Willie de Beer (46.12sec) and South African junior champion Jacques de Swardt (46.55sec) in the March race in Pretoria.
It is highly unlikely Pistorius will win the 400m in the London Olympics, assuming he qualifies, but the 400m is in need of a new hero after the 2008 Olympic champion, LaShawn Merritt, failed a drugs test last year and is serving a 21-month suspension which finishes in July.
Pistorius has set no limits on his ambitions: “I’d like to be the fastest man on the planet, whether that be on no legs or with legs. For me the goal is to run fast all the time. I want to set world records and Paralympic records. Of course I’m different to other athletes; I have no legs, but all I am is an athlete wanting to compete and to be the best.
“I have been given this talent and if you waste a talent, that is a sin. That’s why I put in all the hard work with Ampie, the dieting and staying for five months in a small flat in Italy. You have to make the sacrifices.”
Oscar Pistorius is a BT ambassador. BT is an official partner of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. For more information visit www.bt.com/london2012
Kevin McCallum is the Chief Sports Writer on The Star in Johannesburg
- Follow Oscar Pistorius on Twitter – @OscarPistorius