From wired.com, comes this report about Oscar Pritorius, the first amputee whose bid to cross over from Paralympics to the SA Olympic team, may just force the world to rethink what it means to be a disabled athlete.
“Two years ago Pistorius ran the 200 in 21.34 seconds, matching the womenâ€™s world record time set by Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 and missing the qualifying time for the 2008 Olympics by just three-quarters of a second.”
The 21 year old South African was born with two toes on each foot and missing his fibulas on both legs. Faced with the unimaginable choice of amputating his lower legs or consigning him to a wheelchair, his parents chose the former.
Oscar was still a child when he told his Dad he’d be a Rugby star, but his enthusiastic participation in both water polo and Rugby ended at 17 with a shattered knee. He turned to athletics at the University of Pretoria, a premier sport and academic facilityâ€”and the rest is history.
Team Ossurâ€”the Icelandic firm that makes both Pistorius’s street prosthetics and his Cheetahsâ€”report that in his first year of competition, and after training for only two months, Oscar ran the 100m in an open competition at the Pilditch stadium in his hometown of Pretoria in only 11.51 seconds, the world record standing at 12.22 seconds. Legs or no legs, this was a kid who could compete and win pretty much anything he set his mind to.
Eight months later he was racing alongside Marlon Shirley and Brian Frasure at the Athens Paralympics. After falling flat on his face at the starting blocks, he took the bronze medal behind Shirley and Frasure in the 100m. Fall or no fall, admits that the 100m will never be his event. It takes him longer than the top single amputee sprinters to get his rhythm going.
While the world gasped, Pistorius took gold that year in the 200m, breaking the world record with a time of 21.97 seconds and becoming the first amputee ever to run the 200m in under 22 seconds. Pistorius went home that day with four world records and the bug had bit.
So, what’s his secret?
Three things: talent, attitude and Cheetahs, a carbon fibre prosthetic that is both amazing and controversial. Amazing because the engineering swoop and high energy return of these hyper-engineered, autoclave-forged, epoxy-impregnated, elastic blades â€”essentially pegs in the shape of an animal’s hind legâ€”essentially spring a natural, if legless athlete like Pistorius to his next step and past the finish line. Wired’s Josh McGugh reports that they are difficult to walk slow in, difficult to control.
And at between $15,000 and $18,000 for each blade, the question that officialdomâ€”suggested by single amputees like superstars Marlon Shirley and Brian Frasureâ€”must consider is whether they may actually confer an advantage.
Equally controversial is whether able-bodied athletes also need protection from The Blade?
Pistorius’ handlersâ€”his manager Lizl Shutte, his strength trainer Stephen Ball and running coach Ampie Louw â€” have an answer: “If you think having carbon-fiber legs will make you a faster sprinter, have the operation and weâ€™ll see you at the track.”
He is still working on becoming the fastest sprinter in the world, but will never stop running at the Paralympics, which will always have a special place in his heart.
“Running in the Olympics would be amazing but in many ways the Paralympics are even more special. Why? The passion the athletes have for their sport in unbelievable. The cerebral palsy runners know their condition can’t get any better, but I defy anyone to watch them and not see them as fully dedicated athletes who train as hard as any Olympian. Before I was exposed to the Paralympics, like most people I thought they were second best in some way. How wrong can you be? In the Olympics of 2016, I firmly believe each and every finalist in each and every Paralympic event will have an Olympic qualifying time.”
So, what’s next? Defending his 200m Paralympic title in Beijing 2008 and competing in the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing and the Olympic Games 2012 in London.
None of his coaches or managers intend on cutting the wunder-kid any slack. Both Ball and Louw are tough taskmasters. Ball has him on a hardcore weight training program, but is worried that Pistorius only started a year ago. Too much partying. The blond Adonis is a national celebrity and has to beat the babes off with a stick. Or at least his texting hand, while the other is on the wheel of his zippy Ibiza hatchbackâ€”manual of course.
Pistorius’s determination to be considered as an athlete, who just so happens to run on Flex-Foot carbon-fiber blades from the knee down not only compels him to take part in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes, if officialdom agrees, but infuses every aspect of his lifestyle and personality.
Ampie Louw, Pistoriusâ€™ running coach since 2003, says the biggest thing standing between the sprinter and the two seconds he needs to cut from his time in the 400 meters to make the Olympics may be his hectic social life.
As for being disabled, Pistorius refuses to park his ride in the disabled space, simply because he does not regard himself as physically impaired.
“I’m not disabled, ” he says. “I just don’t have any legs.”
Now that’s what we mean by attitude.