His spirit sets him apart

08/05/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:37 AM

LONDON – Oscar Pistorius marches into Olympic Stadium with a limping gait of an old man, and the only thing you see, the only place you look, the only thing that matters, are his legs.

They are blades. Goodness, they really are blades. Their charcoal tint glistens beneath a sudden London sun. They seem to squeak around a damp midmorning track.

He flew the legs here from South Africa in a carry-on bag. He will be delayed after his race because he is removing the legs.

When he drops into the metal starting blocks Saturday morning, becoming the first double amputee to compete in an Olympics, his legs make it appear he's actually part of the starting blocks. When he begins running, his legs make it appear as if he is floating, and you openly swear you have never seen anything like this in your long sporting life.

But then, 400 meters later, an amazing thing happens.

The race ends, and it becomes apparent that his legs are the least important thing about him.

It's about his smile. Has there ever been someone happier to be at an Olympics? Has there ever been someone happier to be anywhere? Before the race, he is shining so brightly that he says his cheeks cramped. Later, he stands in front of me and holds out his left arm.

"Look, it's an hour after the race and I still have goose bumps," he says.

It's about his spirit. He was the last of 125 South Africans added to the team. His admission into the Games had earlier even been banned by the sport's governing body, yet he fights through the emotion to qualify for the semifinals in 45.44 seconds, one of his best times this season.

"I didn't know whether to cry, I had a mixture of emotions," he says, adding, "To sacrifice for all this, it's really mind-blowing."

More than anything, it's about his heart, which has seemingly been sprinting toward this moment for nearly 25 years, since a birth defect led to his legs being amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. Running in the Olympics? He was never even supposed to stand. But his late mother, Sheila, never let him accept anything less.

"I thought about my mom today. She was bit of a hard-core person," he says. "She always said a loser is not the person who gets involved and comes in last, but it's the person who doesn't get involved at all."

Oh, yeah, it's also about his charm. He actually thanks the hordes of media for waiting for him for nearly an hour after Saturday's race, even though part of the delay was caused when he changed his legs into his regular prosthetics. The man with perhaps the greatest current nickname in sports – "Blade Runner" – also thanks the 80,000 fans for their huge ovation, even if it includes a different sort of catcall.

"I heard some guy shout, 'Hey, you sexy beauty,' " Pistorius says. "This is just the most amazing experience."

Of course, it will continue to spark the most amazing of debates, springing from the power he seems to derive from his prosthetics. Does a runner with no legs actually have an advantage over a runner with two legs? Pistorius is no threat for a medal, but some worry these legs are walking the sport into a tricky tug of science over skill.

Five years ago, studies conducted by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body of track and field, showed Pistorius expended less energy than an able-bodied runner and banned him from official competitions. He responded by remaining in the Paralympics, where he won titles and still competes.

However, a year later, that decision was overruled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and Pistorius was given another chance. When he met the Olympic standard qualifying time this year, South Africa added him to its team, much to the dismay of some.

"My position is that because we don't know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetic that he wears, it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors," said Michael Johnson, the 400-meter world-record holder, in a Telegraph interview.

Saturday could mark the first step toward things like runners as robots and swimmers with prosthetic fins. Possible, but improbable, and why can't we just celebrate this human achievement without worrying about it becoming something inhumane?

Runner after runner spoke glowingly of Pistorius on Saturday, even those he beat, because "we've got guys out here doing drugs, any advantage that Oscar might have is the least of my concerns," says Dominica's Erison Hurtault. "He's amazing. He's inspiring."

Oscar Pistorius is so inspiring, he overwhelms the reason he inspires. As he finally disappears from the interview area Saturday, still smiling, still waving at anyone who catches his eye, you remember you want to write what kind of shoes the runner with no legs is wearing.

You can't. You weren't looking.

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