Oscar PistoriusThe only man to span both Paralympics and Olympics, meet the boy from South Africa who grew up to become one of the most inspiring runners the world has ever known. As we have long since established, Running Icons come in many different guises. Our Hall of Fame already boasts endurance specialists, sprinters, hurdlers, administrators and coaches. It celebrates those who have, in all their many and varied forms, taken the simple act of running, to a new height. Sometimes they comprise nods to historical genius, sometimes a more contemporary triumph, but all, in their own way, feature the overcoming of a difficulty, whether it be a self-imposed barrier, a social convention or some other form of hardship. All our Icons, in one way or another, have triumphed over something to get to where they did, whether it be people doubting their talent, or life putting obstacles in their path. What we admire, as much as what they achieved, is what they conquered in order to achieve it. Few, if any, have overcome as many ‘difficulties’ as Oscar Pistorius, a man who has highlighted a previously gaping hole in the composition of our illustrious gathering. After the sporting summer London has just enjoyed, to have proceeded this far without a Paralympian looks like a slightly crass oversight on our behalf. To proceed further still would be both inexcusable and illogical. You see, Pistorious, in keeping with the lessons the summer has taught us, needs to be inducted because of his achievements, not his struggles. And yet, we cannot ignore them. Before he reached his first birthday, Pistorius was a double amputee, having been born without a fibula in either leg, and undergoing devastating, yet inevitable surgery at the age of 11 months. He could, with less insightful and enlightened people around him, have been led towards a ‘safer’, less rigorous life, away from sport and perceived risk, but mercifully his family took a different view. At the age of 13, Pistorius was regularly playing rugby, water polo and tennis, the latter two for his province, as well as enjoying wrestling. His prosthetic limbs were turning him into an inspirational figure in his local community – a child who refused to accept that fate had dealt him a pre-determined hand. Someone who would make his own decisions, and not have them forced upon him by other peoples’ ideas of where his limitations should lay. It was ironic, then, that just before his seventeenth birthday, fate and conviction finally converged to shape one of the most famous paths in recent sporting history. While playing rugby, Pistorius suffered a serious knee injury, and required lengthy rehabilitation. While recovering at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre, he met a coach, Ampie Louw, who encouraged him to concentrate on running. A staggering talent had been unearthed.
Within seven months, Pistorius had qualified for the Athens Paralympics, and won bronze in the 100m. In the heats of the 200m he fell, got to his feet and still managed to qualify for the final, which he proceeded to win, breaking the world record in the process, running 21.97.
Nobody quite knew what to make of him – until just a few months earlier, nobody had heard of him, and now a former rugby-playing, double amputee, not yet old enough to go out and buy a beer to celebrate, had struck gold and run faster than any amputee, ever. He was a story – and when he announced his intentions to compete alongside able-bodied athletes, the story became much bigger, much faster. The following year he competed at the South African championships, finishing sixth in the 400m, breaking the Paralympic world record along the way. At the Paralympic World Cup he completed the sprint double and improved his 200m record, before going to the Paralympic World Championships and doing the 100, 200 and 400m treble. By early in 2007, Pistorius had run 10.91 for the 100m, 21.58 for the 200m and 46.56 for the 400m. He was sweeping the board at every Paralympic event he attended, and taking amputee sprinting into an entirely new age – somewhere few had believed possible. Later that summer, the first step in a historic transition was made, when he ran the 400m at Rome’s Golden Gala meeting, competing on a larger, more glamorous stage than ever before against able-bodied athletes. Having finished second in the ‘B’ race, Pistorius was also helping demolish the idea that, in his own case, there was anything much in the notion of able and disabled athletes, proving himself more able than the able, while clearly disabled. It was a conundrum that would bemuse the sport for several more years to come. In 2007, following his forays into elite level able-bodied competition, Pistorius was subjected to a series of tests, following an IAAF ban which claimed not to be targeted specifically at him, while rendering him ineligible to compete with a sniper’s accuracy. A Professor of Biomechanics, Dr Peter Bruggemann, ruled that the blades on which he raced offered Pistoius a “considerable advantage”, and admitted he was surprised at how large the assistance was. As a result, in January 2008, his blades were specifically banned, in a move clearly designed to rule him out of the Beijing Games. Pistorius appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and in April 2008, the ban was overturned. Somehow, the expert had failed to test Pistorius on a bend, only filming him on a straight. Finally, at the 11th hour, his Olympic bid was back on. And yet it was not to be, as results, rather than rules ensured that, ultimately, he failed in his bid to make the South African team. Off the back of the decision, people attempted, ludicrously prematurely, to question whether a Paralympic runner would ever also compete at Olympic level, without stopping to consider that Pistorius was hardly the first 21 year old to fail to reach the Olympics. He had fallen short, this time, because of age, not disability. His response was to repeat the treble of 100m, 200m and 400m at the Beijing Paralympics, reducing his world record in the one lap event in the process. By the close of the Games, he had acquired four golds and one bronze medal during his Paralympic career, all by the age of 21. His dominance of Paralympic events continued, but from a dramatic perspective, the story would always, inevitably, reach its climax in the Olympic arena. In July, 2011, Pistorius set a new personal best of 45.07 seconds, in Italy. It was a run which had vast consequences, earning him an Olympic Games ‘A’ standard time. With the legal barriers removed, the final sporting one had now also disappeared – Pistorius was fast enough to compete in London twice, at both the Paralympics and, in an iconic moment, at the Olympics. He reached the semi-final of the 400m, and in one of the most poignant moments of the Games, Kirani James, the man who would go on to become champion, sought him out after the finish and exchanged race numbers. He ran the final leg for the South African team in the 4x400m relay, and carried the flag at the closing ceremony. The little boy who had his legs removed at the age of 11 months, had just become the first amputee ever to run at an Olympic Games. By the time he returned to London, some weeks later, for the Paralympics, the impact Pistorius had had on the event became clear. The London crowd had its own heroes, but Pistorius was a star – an icon. Incredibly, he was beaten in the 200m, by Alan Oliveira of Brazil, then, in the minutes after the race, sparking controversy by complaining about the nature of the Brazilian’s blades. It was an outburst he instantly regretted, and he apologised immediately, but it showed the pressure he was under. In the 100m he was beaten by Britain’s Jonnie Peacock, who revealed afterwards how Pistorius had encouraged and supported him, telling him “this is your moment”. By the time he stepped onto the track for the last event of the Games, the crowd were firmly back in love with Pistorius, and he responded by winning the 400m in a time of 46.68, breaking the Paralympic record. The ovation he received told its own story. Pistorius had achieved his dream of running at the Olympics, without ever disowning or leaving behind the Paralympics. The athletes who had beaten Pistorius had done so after being drawn to the sport by him – he had taken the event to a whole, new level, just in time for it to arrive in London, where the entire Games were presented to the world as never before. The Paralympics grew up in London this summer, into something proud, independent and, crucially, mainstream. They helped people see the ability, not the disability, and neither the Games, nor the nation, will ever be the same again. Our very first Running Icon, Chris Brasher, lived his life by a maxim set down by Robert Browning – “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. Oscar Pistorius would recognise both the wisdom of those words, and the power of them when used as a guiding principle. He always reached out for more, and never accepted apparent limitations. He is a deserving and true Icon.