Oscar Pistorius will run historic races on prosthetic legs; could bring South Africa a medal

·NFL columnist
Oscar Pistorius of South Africa (REUTERS)
Oscar Pistorius of South Africa (REUTERS)

LONDON – Oscar Pistorius was on the elevator staring at the gold medal of South African countryman Chad Le Clos and thinking it odd to see the swimmer have breakfast with his coveted hardware.

"I haven't taken it off since yesterday!" Le Clos said.

Pistorius laughed. As symbolism goes, those who love the Olympics would say Le Clos got it right: Some things in these Games are good enough to be carried everywhere. And if you've ever met Pistorius, you know why. A South African runner equal parts engaging and effervescent, Pistorius's personality makes the London Olympics grand theater long before you get to the obvious – he'll be running in them with prosthetic legs.

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And not just running. Track and field's first double amputee in the Olympics, Pistorius will run in the 400-meter sprint as well as compete in the 4 x 400 relay. Any medal – and one appears to be a possibility in the 4 x 400 – would be merely another accessory to go along with Pistorius's four golds and one bronze from the Paralympic Games in Athens and Beijing.

But the fact that he's even taking part is a significant victory. It comes only after a four-year battle for eligibility, which saw Pistorius and a cadre of U.S. scientists take the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) to court in 2007 and 2008, arguing that his carbon-fiber legs didn't give him an advantage over his able-bodied counterparts nor endanger other runners.

Four years, countless arguments, and forever dreams – all in the hopes of running a sub 45-second 400 meters while milling around the Olympic Games as just another athlete.

As for where Pistorius will run in the relay, he said he has no idea, but will be "ready to run whichever leg they will ask me to run."

Until then, he's sought a low profile in spite of his story, which was spotlighted in 2008 before he failed to qualify for Beijing, and then shelved as he slimmed down and gained speed heading into London.

But while Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt have been ever-present centerpieces at these Games, Pistorius has kept a low profile despite having a journey that is arguably unmatched among his peers.

"His story is so inspirational," said U.S. sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross. "That's what these games are about. It's about having great stories and great people taking part. Oscar, by far, is one of those great stories and great people."

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Born without his fibulas – one of the bones that runs from the knee to the ankle – Pistorius had both his legs amputated when he was 11 months old. Early on, his mother pushed him to learn to walk on prosthetics, and the artificial legs became a part of his life as far back as he can remember.

"My mother said to [myself and my brother] in the morning, 'Cole, you put on your shoes, and Oscar, you put on your prosthetic legs, and that's the last I want to hear about it,'" Pistorius said. "I grew up not really thinking I had a disability. I grew up thinking I had different shoes. It was just kind of a very normal kind of life for me. I just played sports – I was never really an academic from a young age, so sport was the one thing I loved."

Having known nothing else but his prosthetics, Pistorius was constantly playing sports with the neighborhood kids – some better than others – and eventually developed an affinity for rugby. During a match as a 16-year old, he took a particularly brutal hit, damaging one of his prosthetic legs and suffering a serious knee injury that would require rehabilitation.

"All the fathers had had a couple of beers," Pistorius said, "and they were kind of shouting, you know, 'Walk it off. Don't be so soft.'"

It sounds cruel, but Pistorius tells the story with a laugh now. Maybe because that was such an important moment – and likely the last time anyone joked about him again. During the several months of rehab that followed that 2003 injury, Pistorius met Ampie Louw, a renowned coach who recognized sprinting talents even the young athlete hadn't seen. Within months, Louw had Pistorius running and training for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. And he wouldn't disappoint, capturing bronze in the 100 meters, and both a gold and a world record in the 200.

Just like that, sprinting went from being a way to stay in shape for rugby to being the definition of Pistorius' life. And much like every other sport he played as a youth, he threw himself in with able-bodied athletes and held his own.

"I never saw a difference between disability and ability," Pistorius said. "When I started running, I ran for my club and I was training with my counterparts, my fellow athletes, and they were all able-bodied guys. On the weekends, we ran against each other."

Pistorius ran in sanctioned meets in 2007, until the IAAF amended its rules to ban any use of a mechanical "device" which could give runners an advantage over their peers. It was clearly aimed at Pistorius and became a highly controversial ruling that was eventually struck down by an international court before the 2008 Beijing Games. After his path was open to compete in Beijing, Pistorius failed to meet the standard necessary to compete in the 400 meters, and he was not selected by South Africa for the 4 x 400 relay.

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While some might have been devastated, Pistorius instead focused on the Paralympic Games in Beijing, and began a new training journey that would have him peaking just before London in 2012. He ultimately won the 100, 200 and 400 sprints in Beijing, and after three years of fine-tuning his physique, he ran a personal best of 45.07 seconds in the 400 in July 2011, meeting the "A" standard for track and field qualification for the London Games. He went on to compete in the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, failing to advance in the 400 meters, but playing a part in South Africa's silver medal in the 4 x 400 relay.

Now 25, the spike in performance has delivered him to this stage, where he'll compete in the 400 meters on Saturday, and eventually, on South Africa's 4 x 400 team. There are still critics, including former U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, who believe Pistorius doesn't encounter the same pain and exhaustion as his competitors at the end of races. But for every question, there are those who offer only the superlatives they have come to associate with Pistorius and his journey.

"He's phenomenal," said Richards-Ross. "He's very determined. Really fierce."

Determined, fierce, and still competing. Which may be exactly what his mother had in mind when she had him fitted for his "different shoes" so many years ago.

"One thing she always said was 'A loser isn't the person who gets involved and comes last. It's the person that doesn't get involved in the first place,' " Pistorius said. "That really rubbed off hard on us."

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