A thoughtful and thought-provoking article by Jim Litke for the Huff Post Sports
LONDON — Oscar Pistorius is brave, articulate, polite, polished, handsome and funny. He doesn’t play the victim and never complains. Those reasons and more are why his lifelong struggles to become an Olympian are so celebrated.
But what if he actually won?
How many of the cheers that routinely greet the 25-year-old double-amputee would be stifled at the finish line, replaced by gasps, grumbling, or worse? How many of those athletes who treat the South African as “just another guy” in the Olympic village would feel differently if he started beating them or their countrymen?
How many would mutter under their breath afterward, “Of course he won. Look at what he’s using for legs.”
Pistorius has carved out a second career charming critics and puncturing judgments like that with sharp humor, a skill he put to use Wednesday in his first official appearance as an Olympian. He doesn’t begin his turn on the stage until Saturday’s 400-meter qualifying heats, followed by qualifying heats next week as part of South Africa’s 4×400 relay team.
But make no mistake: Pistorius is already a star. His packed introductory news conference had barely begun when he told a story of being rushed off to school with his older brother and sister.
“My mother said to us one morning, ‘Carl, you put on your shoes, and Oscar, you put on your prosthetic legs.’ And that was the last we heard of it. I didn’t grow up thinking I had a disability,” he said, pausing for effect. “I grew up thinking I had different shoes.”
As the laughs cascaded toward the stage, he grinned, then reached up and adjusted the sunglasses perched atop his head. Those seemed like a curious fashion accessory, especially for someone bathed in the spotlights of an auditorium, until you learned they were provided by one of his several top-flight sponsors. So are Pistorius’ prosthetics, though he is much less likely to tout their benefits. Downplaying them, in fact, is the central argument in his long-running battle to compete against able-bodied athletes.
Pistorius was born without a fibula in each leg – the slender bone that runs from below the knee down to the ankle. Both legs were amputated below the knee before he was a year old. Barely six months later, he learned to get around on prosthetic legs and was soon playing sports ranging from wrestling to rugby at school.
The story of why he switched to track soon after that was vintage Pistorius. It began with his knee getting shattered at an important high school rugby match and ended with some overserved parents yelling at him to “shake it off.” Soon enough, Pistorius did. He decided to devote his attention to track, a sport he previously thought of mostly as a conditioning program.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that three weeks after his first training session, Pistorius won a high school 100-meter race in 11.72 seconds, faster than the Paralympic world record at the time. Or that after entering the 2004 Paralympics in Athens later the same summer, he won gold at 200 meters and bronze in the 100. Or that by the following March, he finished sixth in the 400 against able-bodied runners at the South African Championships, prompting him to petition the IAAF, track’s governing body, for more chances against the best.
Nearly three more years passed before Pistorius secured the right to do just that. It came on the heels of a 2008 decision by the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, which granted his appeal and cleared the way for him to take a real shot at the Olympics – so long as he competed using the same prostheses that were available to disabled athletes for nearly a dozen years by then.
“The top Paralympics athletes have been using the same leg as I have since 1996 and there was never an athlete to run close to the times that I was running in the 400 meters,” he said. “I don’t even think there was an athlete to break 50 seconds in the 400.
“So, if these legs are able to provide such an advantage,” he added, “then how come everybody else isn’t running the same times?”
Actually, no other disabled athlete has even come close.
Pistorius subsequently won three more golds (100, 200 and 400 meters) at the 2008 Summer Paralympics and will compete in those games again after these. Why he continues to run in both – in a sense, arguing he’s disabled when it best suits him – is a question worthy of another column. But Pistorius deftly sidestepped that controversy for the moment by saying he was simply focusing his effort on the games in front of him.
For all the good feeling that effort will engender, even a bronze medal in the 400 is the longest of shots. Despite his stated goal of reaching the semifinal, more than 20 men have run faster this year than Pistorius’ best-ever time of 45.07.
But a medal for South Africa’s 4×400 relay team – Pistorius prefers the second or third leg, but usually leads off – could be within reach. Ever more likely perhaps, would be a medal at the 2016 Games.
“I should be at my peak then. Sprinters usually peak between 27 and 29, and I’ll be 29 then. I may have a receding hairline already,” he said, “but I think we will have a lot of fun.”
Pistorius has no idea whether that elusive win will ever come along, only that handling success will be the easiest part of the trip.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.Tags: 2016 games, disabled athlete, double amputee, Jim Litke, Olympics, Oscar Pistorius, Paralympics, prosthetic legs