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Ausgabe 29/2007

Sprinting Through the Barriers The Fastest Man on No Legs

South African runner Oscar Pistorius is fighting for the right to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games -- despite being a double amputee. The unique athlete is at the center of a bitter dispute over technological enhancement in sports and the very definition of disabled.

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South Africa's Oscar Pistorius on the starting blocks.
AFP

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius on the starting blocks.

As the South African sun beats down relentlessly on the athletic center at the University of Pretoria, Oscar Pistorius gets off to a furious start. Churning down the track, his muscular upper body is bent forward at a sharp angle and his legs barely seem to touch the ground.

Pistorius, a broad-shouldered and blue-eyed 20-year-old, finishes his run and walks gingerly over to the trainers' bench. He smiles broadly, unfastens a few buckles and tosses his leg to the side.

"My legs," he says, referring to two carbon-fiber sports prostheses that replace his lower legs and feet. He sits down on the track, revealing the stumps of his legs, which end below the knees.

Ask Pistorius, and he'll tell you he's already well on his way to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The young runner is an exceptional athlete. He has already broken more than 20 world records in disabled sports. He runs the 200-meter race in 21.58 seconds, which is less than two seconds slower than Shawn Crawford, the men's Olympic gold medalist in Athens (19.79 seconds) and faster than Veronica Campbell (22.05 seconds), who captured the women's gold in Athens.

"I simply have no competition at the Paralympics," says Pistorius, explaining why he wants to take part in the regular Olympics. He competed against a field of able-bodied runners at the South African Championships in March 2007, finishing second in the 400 meters.

But a double amputee in the Olympics? The sporting world has been divided by a bitter dispute for months. Critics say Pistorius's prostheses give him an unfair advantage because, so they claim, they are longer than his natural legs would be.

In March the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) issued proposals to amend their rules, banning the use of "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device" -- a decision that would have disqualified Pistorius from competing in the Olympics.

But now the organization has changed its position. "Pistorius can compete," says Nick Davies, a spokesman for the IAAF, "at least until it's scientifically proven that his prostheses constitute an unfair advantage."

To arrive at its assessment, the organization has contacted renowned biomechanics expert Gert-Peter Brüggemann of the German Sport University in Cologne. But Brüggemann's report is not expected to be complete until at least mid-August.

Until then, Pistorius will be free to compete against able-bodied athletes. He recently took part in the Golden League meet in Rome, where he came in second in the 400 meters B race.

He dislikes the distinction between disabled and non-disabled, a distinction he sees as his real adversary in every race he runs. By bridging the divide, Pistorius has already added a page to sports history. "I'm not disabled, I just don't have any legs," he says. "There is nothing I can't do."

Pistorius leads during a race at the Paralympic world cup in Manchester, UK in May 2007.
AFP

Pistorius leads during a race at the Paralympic world cup in Manchester, UK in May 2007.

He runs marathons, dances, plays water polo, rides a mountain bike and drives a motorcycle and a car. It would never occur to Pistorius to use a handicapped parking space. He is in better shape than most people. He has even invented his own slogan: "The fastest thing on no legs."

Pistorius plays to the public's voyeurism with words like these, while at the same time challenging its attitudes about the disabled. Not having any feet is a completely normal thing for Pistorius. He was born without fibulae, or calf bones, in his legs. His parents were faced with a difficult choice: Keeping his partially developed legs would have meant life in a wheelchair. Instead, his parents chose to have them amputated when he was 11 months old. He learned to walk with prostheses.

This sense of normalcy gives him a tremendous advantage over Paralympic athletes who lost their legs in adulthood. Not having legs is Pistorius's only reality. As a boy, he routinely outran other children in school, playing football, tennis, water polo, cricket and rugby. But when he began to compete officially, he suddenly found himself being treated as a disabled person. His classification was T43, the Bonn-based International Paralympic Committee's code for amputations of both lower legs.

Pistorius despises categories like T43, and yet they have played a critical role in shaping his life as a competitive athlete. Being classified as T43 has enabled him to achieve his world records and acquire his status as a Paralympics champion. He is a business student at the University of Pretoria, but he is also a professional athlete through and through. He has a manager who arranges his press appearances and invests his money. He has a trainer and a team of physical therapists. And he has sponsorship agreements with major companies like Nike, Visa, Baume & Mercier and Honda. Rumor has it that Tom Hanks wants to turn his life story into a movie.

His prostheses are undeniably responsible for part of his success. The J-shaped blades are optimized for sprinting, but of little use to Pistorius for anything else. This explains why he walks so gingerly with the blades still attached -- otherwise he would fall over. He prefers conventional, rigid prostheses for ordinary use.

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