x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Olympics: Oscar Pistorius has made a compelling case

The South African sprinter is incredibly charming and popular but once he starts winning, his prosthetic limbs and their perceived advantages will come in question.

Oscar Pistorius says he is in contention to win gold in 2016 Olympic Games. Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters
Oscar Pistorius says he is in contention to win gold in 2016 Olympic Games. Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

Oscar Pistorius is brave, articulate, polite, polished, handsome and funny. He does not 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, who has carved out a second career charming critics with sharp humour, does not begin his turn on the stage until tomorrow's 400-metre qualifying heats, followed by qualifying heats next week as part of South Africa's 4x400 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. "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 on his head. Those seemed like a curious fashion accessory 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's 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 before switching to athletics.

Three weeks after his first training session, Pistorius won a high school 100m race in 11.72 seconds, faster than the Paralympic world record at the time. At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens later the same summer, he won gold at 200m and bronze in the 100m. The following March, he finished sixth in the 400m 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 years passed before Pistorius secured the right to do 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.

For all the good feeling his effort will engender, even a bronze medal in the 400m is the longest of shots and despite his stated goal of reaching the semi-final, more than 20 men have run faster this year than Pistorius's best-ever time of 45.07.

But a medal for South Africa's 4x400 relay team 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," he said. "I may have a receding hairline already but I think we will have a lot of fun."

Pistorius has no idea whether that elusive win will ever come, only that handling success will be the easiest part of the trip.


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