Making history, no matter the outcome

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa runs on carbon-fiber prostheses. Oscar Pistorius of South Africa runs on carbon-fiber prostheses. (Anthony Devlin/Fast Track Agency via Getty Images)
By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / August 4, 2012
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LONDON — Oscar Pistorius is talking about training, about running technique, about perfectly executed 400-meter races. He sounds like every other world-class athlete, narrowly focused on all the factors that affect performance.

“You go into the 400 with a game plan and you try to execute that plan,” said Pistorius. “But in the race, nine times out of 10 you’ll adapt it.”

Pistorius, 25, knows more than most people about adapting. For while he may sound like any other Olympian, the South African double-amputee looks much different on the track, with his j-shaped carbon-fiber “Cheetah” Flex-Foot prostheses. Known as the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius had to fight hard in competitions and in court to win the right to compete against conventional runners and participate in the London Games.

On Saturday, Pistorius will make his Olympic debut in the 400-meter qualifying heats, his participation alone a moment of history for disabled athletes as the first double-amputee in the Games. He hopes to reach the semifinals and break 45 seconds in the 400, then help the South African 4x400-meter relay team. But for all the admiration that comes his way, Pistorius’s participation also stirs debate about whether his carbon-fiber legs provide an unfair advantage. He wishes the focus was on his talent, not the technology he needs to run.

“Ultimately, I’m a performance athlete,” said Pistorius. “I want to be respected for what I do. That respect can’t come out of finding efficiency from a piece of equipment. It must come from training hard and making sacrifices.”

Still, he answers questions about his prostheses with patience and oft-repeated arguments.

“People talk about the technology of my leg and it being cutting edge,” said Pistorius. “It’s carbon fiber and it’s been around for 30 years. It’s been used in prosthetic legs for 20 years. The prosthetic leg I run on has been made since 1996, the exact same model. As far as technology, it’s actually pretty primitive. It’s not anything that’s state of the art, bionic, or anything like that. And that’s the leg that we’ve got to work with. And I’m happy with that. That’s the leg that most of the top Paralympic athletes use. It’s been around forever.”

He asks, “If the blades give me so much of an advantage, then why aren’t other athletes who have them running as fast as me?’’

Pistorius is the Paralympic world record-holder in the 100, 200, and 400. That said, his 400 personal best of 45.07 seconds is almost two seconds slower than the world-record mark of 43.18 set by American Michael Johnson, a considerable margin in elite running, where 10ths and 100ths of a second matter.

Now, with better nutrition, Pistorius is a lighter, leaner, more wiry runner, 170 pounds in prostheses, than he was a couple of years ago. At the lighter weight, he finds it easier to run fast and recover, giving him hope of improving on his personal best on the fast track at the Olympic Stadium.

Pistorius says critics and skeptics focus on how his legs are lighter, with carbon-fiber feet, but never consider how difficult it is to run without an ankle joint. At 6 feet 1 inch in his prostheses, he emphasizes that prosthetic legs don’t help him lift his knees higher or maintain proper form while fatigued. Pistorius sees himself like every other sprinter, trying to generate speed while being as efficient in his movements as possible.

When races begin, it is clear Pistorius is at a disadvantage because it takes him longer to accelerate to full speed. Plus, with his artificial legs designed for sprinting, not standing still, he cannot easily balance his weight when he reaches the finish line, exhausted. He cannot stand still post-race, so he shifts his weight from foot to foot to stay upright and catch his breath. It is in those moments of reflection when he can be his toughest critic.

“I’m very critical even on a good day,” said Pistorius. “I’ve had personal-best races where some of the people around me are happier than what I am. I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it was great, but this was bad or that could have been better’ . . . That for me sometimes gets a bit frustrating. But that’s the only way you can get better. I look at how I slept to how I travel to what I ate. I analyze everything.”

Pistorius never, even as a small child, thought of himself as disabled. “I just grew up thinking I had different shoes,” he said. He was born without a fibula in either leg — the slender bone that stretches from the ankle to just below the knee. At 11 months, both legs were amputated below the knee. Doctors advised hisparents to have the operation before Pistorius learned to walk, believing it would make the transition easier. He received his first pair of prosthetic legs six months after the operation and learned to walk on them within days. As he grew up, Pistorius put his prostheses to athletic tests in water polo, cricket, tennis, triathlons, wrestling, boxing, and rugby.

A knee shattered in high school rugby led him to running track as rehabilitation. It wasn’t long before his sprinting talent was obvious to all.

In January 2004, he ran his first competitive 100-meter race for the Pretoria Boys High School and finished in 11.72 seconds, besting the Paralympic world record of 12.20 seconds. At the Paralympics later that year, he won the 200 gold in a world-record 21.97 seconds. Three years later, he started competing against conventional athletes in international meets, which led the international governing body of track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federations, to examine the counterintuitive concern that Pistorius, because of his disability, had an unfair advantage. In January 2008, four years after Pistorius first competed in the sport, the federations banned him from all conventional meets, stating that running with his carbon-fiber feet, he used 25 percent less energy than able-bodied sprinters.

Pistorius challenged the ruling, and Hugh Herr, an MIT professor, assembled a team of experts in biomechanics and physiology to scientifically test the IAAF assertion. The team concluded that the Cheetahs did not help Pistorius conserve energy or give him a mechanical advantage — extra thrust — when sprinting. Herr presented those findings before the Court of Arbitration for Sports and the court reversed the federations ban, effectively allowing Pistorius to compete in the London Olympics. Herr hopes Pistorius does well, but knows his success could prompt negative reaction.

“If he doesn’t do well, it will be quiet,” said Herr. “God forbid, if he wins a medal, the controversy will absolutely erupt. People are very emotional about this issue.”

And that includes Johnson, the champion sprinter, who opposes allowing Pistorius to compete against conventional athletes. Such adherence to the idea that Pistorius has an edge does not sit well with Herr, a double-amputee who has spent his career designing and studying prostheses.

“The scientific evidence we have today does not suggest an overall advantage in the 400-meter race,” said Herr. “How anyone could conclude an overall advantage with so little science conducted is speculation. There is not a single data point on the acceleration phase of the race, nor a single data point on running around the curved track with prostheses. In society we cannot ban an athlete from competition because he has a funny-looking body. Michael Johnson needs to think more deeply about the topic.”

Herr does, however, see the need for more scientific study of the issue. Pending the outcome of such research, Pistorius will handle the critics and skeptics with equal parts charm, humor, and logic. He knows more people support him than do not, and that most find his story inspirational.

“I really admire Oscar,” said women’s 400-meter favorite Sanya Richards-Ross. “He’s really impressive. He’s such a great person. If you’re ever around him, he’s always so positive and encouraging. I’m happy for him and I’m excited for him.”

Like the other athletes in the track and field competition, Pistorius has worked years for his Olympic moment. He hopes spectators focus on that.

“I don’t change the legs so that I can run in a certain way or change the way I run to adapt to the legs,” said Pistorius. “That’s what I’ve got to work with. We’ve just got our heads down and are training hard. That’s where I’ll get my improvements from.”

Shira Springer can be reached at

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