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."
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.
Ahead of the Pack
Finished with his sprints, he quickly pulls on the conventional prostheses, jumps up, grabs his bag and strolls over to his trainer, Ampie Louw, a white-haired, 60-year-old giant of a man.
"You're stepping too far at the start, which is why it takes you 50 meters to pass the other runners," Louw tells his pupil, taking his arm. Pistorius's biggest problem as a sprinter is getting started. Short distances are his strength, but the pressure of his first few steps can compress his prostheses too much.
Pistorius's blades are constantly being re-engineered to make them lighter, harder and less wind-resistant. And the better they get, the more vocal his critics become. In the past, they claimed that his prostheses would prevent him from running fast enough for the Olympics. But now they say the devices are enabling him to run too fast. The Pistorius case is so controversial in the running world because it revolves around fundamental issues of sports: fairness and fitness.
Excluding an athlete because of physical abnormalities is unfair, argues Shuaib Manjra, the chairman of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport. "The Paralympics continues to be held as a separate event to the Olympics because of the paradigm that categorizes disability as being abnormal or subnormal," he wrote recently in The Lancet, a professional medical journal.
This is why Manjra, for reasons of fairness, wants to see disabled athletes taking part in the Olympics. But others argue that fairness is precisely the reason this should not occur. "It affects the purity of sports," Elio Locatelli of the IAAF told the New York Times. "Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back."
The notion of rocket-propelled sprinters has been a bizarre fantasy relegated to the world of science fiction until now. In his 1952 novel "Limbo," American author Bernard Wolfe describes an unfair competition in which voluntarily amputated athletes with nuclear-powered prostheses edge out their unenhanced opponents.
But now reality seems to be gradually catching up with the cyborgs of fantasy fiction, plunging the sporting world's conventional image of the body into an identity crisis. Officials like the IAAF's Nick Davies argue that non-disabled athletes must deal with "ankle injuries, lactic acid buildup and cramps." For the first time in sports history, the healthy athlete's body is not being defined by fitness but by sickness and weakness. Conversely, wearers of prostheses are no longer viewed as cripples but as potential superhumans.
Pistorius plays along. Holding his duffle bag in one hand and his running blades in the other, he strolls to his car. Instead of taking his keys out of his pocket, he pulls the key from a hole that a rock punched into his prosthesis while he was riding his motorcycle. "Luckily, I don't have any sense of pain there," he jokes.
Nevertheless, running poses risks for Pistorius. He points, almost nonchalantly, to a scar on his shoulder. When his left prosthesis broke during a sprint, he fell forcefully across the track, almost as if he had been thrown from a moving car. The more he trains, the stronger his prostheses need to be.
Trevor Brauckmann has been crafting Pistorius's prostheses for almost two decades. The sports blades are called "Cheetahs," a reference to their graceful backward curve mimicking the back legs of the animal. The tension that builds up in the Cheetahs when they are compressed is quickly released when pressure is removed, a process that resembles the function of the Achilles tendon, which Pistorius lacks. The Cheetahs give him his uniquely fluid gait, almost as if he were on wheels. "But the prostheses are not an advantage," Brauckmann hastens to add. "They store only about 80 percent of the energy that an Achilles tendon would store."
It seems hardly a coincidence that just as prosthetic technology is undergoing a quantum leap, one record after the other is being set in handicapped sports. It would be perfectly logical to assume that sooner or later prosthetic technology will enable disabled athletes to outperform their non-disabled competitors. Brauckmann, for one, disagrees. "If the critics want, they can have their legs amputated and see if they'll be running faster," he says. "Instead of pitying disabled athletes, other athletes are now envious. That's a sign of normalcy."
Disabled or not disabled isn't a discussion that interests Pistorius much. He has just put on his new legs and bounces through the prosthesis clinic, his legs taut as a trampoline. He horses around with the staff, flirts with the receptionists and dances around the room, moving constantly.
His prostheses are simply not made for standing still.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan