120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 57): Oscar Pistorius, The Bolt on Blades

Re-live the story of the famous South African blade runner.


The South African Paralympic runner, Oscar Pistorius, was one of the brightest names in the Games circle for the past decade. Being a pioneer to run in the Olympics with a disability, this edition of our Olympic Diaries is solely dedicated to the blade runner who took the world by awe in the London Olympics four years back.

Pistorius was born on 22nd November, 1986 in Johannesburg. Disabled with a congenital deformity called “fibular hemimelia”, the baby Oscar suffered from the absence of lower leg bone in both the limbs. At 11 months, his lower limbs were removed through a surgery. The Blade Runner had a penchant for sports right from his child and used to take active part in water polo and wrestling. Given to rigorous fitness regimen from early days, it took Pistorius a grave knee injury from one of the regular rugby matches for his school team to shift his unilateral focus on to athletics and as acknowledged by coach Ampie Louw from the University of Pretoria, the “wonder on blades” never looked back.

The “Bolt on blades” first big hurray came at the 2004 Paralympic Games at Athens when he did away with a slow start in the heats to win the gold under world record time in the 200 m event under the T44 category (one leg amputated below knee). Although the Italian descent actually was double amputee which would have him qualified under the T43 category, it is just the willpower to become more able than disable that made him compete and win in T44 and later in non-disabled, mainstream events. In his own statement, Pistorius went, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”

True to his word, the “fastest man sans legs” expressed his desire to be a part of the mainstream events of the IAAF with an eye on the Beijing Games. However, a study by the Cologne Sports University professors spilled beans on the advantage that the J-shaped prosthetics made up of carbon-fibre brings to the table with the report claiming it saves 25% of the physical labour needed otherwise to achieve with natural limbs. Early in 2008, the IAAF restricted the use of blades which was countered by the Pistorius team at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS).

The defence counseled on lines that the report is ignorant of the disadvantage that a blade runner is faced with while starting off the blocks and during the acceleration phase of the race and is restricted to the full speed segment of the sprint. Finally, the court at Lausanne overruled the IAAF on flimsy ground that the report is not conclusive about how the blades prove advantageous. With a month left to go for Beijing, Oscar tried thrice to achieve at least the B-timing for the Olympics but failed well short of the 45.95 second mark for the 400 m. The South African Olympic Committee waited till the eleventh hour to name their squad for the 400 m relay where Pistorius had a chance to become an Olympian irrespective of his qualification.

Eventually, the national selectors decided to go in with the four who had better splits than the double amputee runner and the Transvaal athlete too stated that he had no interest in becoming an Olympian with a wild card entry. He decided his next destination to be London and would train as hard as possible to bag a direct qualification slot. Couple of months later, the “Times 100” inductee of the year achieved the treble of 100 m, 200 m and 400 m golds in the Paralympic meet with many a records falling apart every time he took the tracks.

In 2011, Pistorius represented South Africa in the World Championships at Daegu. In the individual 400 m, he qualified in the initial heat before bowing out in the semis. In the relay, the blade man started the opening leg and his team qualified for the finals with his split being 46.20 sec. The management decided to bench Pistorius for the final – the initial reason being his the slowest split (countered by expert as the starting off the blocks is never faster) and later clarified on safety grounds for the amputee. Nevertheless, the team won the silver and Pistorius thus became the first disabled athlete to win a medal in a mainstream event.

The national federation included the South African in the Olympic squad – thus becoming the tenth person to participate in both the Olympics and Paralympics. In the 400 m solo sprint at London, he once again qualified the heat to come last in the semi-final and hence eliminated. In the 400 m relay, the South African team qualified for the final but only to finish 8th out of 9 teams in fray. However, they clocked their season’s best time for the relay and Pistorius ran the closing leg in 45.9 sec. The blade runner carried the national flag for the closing ceremony.

In the Paralympics that followed, the 30-year old did win the 100 m relay (T42-T46) with record time and defended his 400 m title from Beijing but had to be content with a silver in 200 m and a farther bronze in the 100 m sprints. The blade runner was awarded the prestigious “Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability” in 2012 for his unprecedented achievements.

However, the fairy tale soon turned into a nightmare for the champion pioneer as on the early night of 14th February next year, Pistorius was arrested on killing his girlfriend and model Reeva Steenkamp at his Pretoria residence. The attempted murder for which the blade runner pleaded not guilty and confessed to be accidental taking Steenkamp for an intruder – convicted the Olympian with culpable homicide amounting to murder with a prison term of 6 years.

No matter what the end of the script is, nothing can take away from the supreme ability of the so-called disabled who has given a thousand reasons to all those people around the globe blighted by a sting of misfortune to create their own paths and thus resurrect their own fortunes. Signing off with a quote from Shakespeare’s genius in Julius Caesar and to which our Oscar Pistorius certainly remains a top-notch example.

Men at some time are masters of their fates.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Photo by Jim Thurston