Richard Bath: Pistorius-Peacock 100m showdown is up there with Bolt-Blake
EIGHT years go, a bored 11-year-old boy named Jonnie Peacock was sitting in the sitting room of his Cambridgeshire home flicking through the television channels when he came across “a close-up of a guy with weird legs” running like a bat out of hell.
That glimpse of the undoubted star of the Athens Paralympics may have been Peacock’s first sight of Oscar Pistorius but, with the youngster’s imagination fired forever, it wasn’t going to be his last.
Next Thursday, Peacock will once again see Pistorius in action. This time, however, the English Paralympian will do so from close quarters in a titanic T44 100m struggle which is being pitched as the Battle of the Blades and which is almost as keenly anticipated as Usain Bolt’s showdown with Yohan Blake in the Olympic version of the same event.
There are all sorts of other Paralympic legends competing this week, not to mention hometown heroes such as Dave Weir and Shelly Woods, but no other event has come close to capturing the public imagination in the same way as the final for amputee sprinters. Not only does it pit South Africa’s Pistorius – the triple gold medallist from Beijing whose dignified quest to be allowed to compete in the Olympics has turned him into a Paralympian poster boy – against Peacock, the teenager who broke Pistorius’ world record earlier this year, but there’s also a stellar supporting class.
In Athens, Pistorius barely knew the rivals who trailed in his wake as he won 200m gold and 100m bronze. This time, however, he will know all of his opponents intimately. And no wonder because any one of Americans Jerome Singleton and Blake Leeper, his room-mate and fellow South African Arnu Fourie and Brazilian Alan Oliveria are capable of beating him and wresting the gold medal from his grasp.
Yet much of the momentum behind this event lies in the fairytale story of Peacock – the teenager who was placed in a coma, almost died and then lost a leg when he was hit by meningitis as a five-year-old – facing down his hero. It’s a meeting of giants in which the young pretender and undisputed champion will duke it out in front of a packed Olympic stadium in which the hysteria is expected to comfortably eclipse anything Paralympic sport has ever witnessed.
It’s also a contest that has been lent added spice by Pistorius’s vulnerability. The South African gained his high profile through his fight to be allowed to compete in the Olympics, a fight that the so-called “fastest man on no legs” ultimately won, going on to contest the semi-final of the 400m and the final of the 4x400m. Yet, in order to make the Olympic qualifying time, for the past four years he has had to concentrate on the 400m to the almost complete exclusion of the 100m and 200m, two of the three events at which he won gold in Beijing.
The result is a markedly different runner. Specialist sprinters tend to be more powerful and muscular, building up explosive speed through hours of pumping iron. The physique required for the 400m is markedly different, however, requiring a greater strength-to-weight ratio, which is why Pistorius is almost two stones lighter than he was in Beijing. Nor does the form book favour him. While Peacock set a new world record of 10.85 in Indianapolis in April, Pistorius’s recent sprint was his first 100m in 16 months and it is now over five years since he set his fastest time of 10.91 in the 100m.
“I’m not a 100-metres runner any more,” admitted the 25-year-old. “I’m not really suited to it. I have moved away from the 100 and the top guys are now running quicker than I am, and it’s their focus. I have to be realistic and say that the 200 and 400 [and 4x400m relay] are the events that I am better suited for.”
Pistorius is undoubtedly right. Although he also points out that his experience of the intensity in the Olympic stadium will give him a crucial edge over the other competitors on what is sure to be a highly-charged race, it will be a major triumph if he can retain his 100m crown. Peacock has the exuberance and confidence of youth on his side – “most people saw me as a potential finalist with Rio in 2016 as the aim, but I’ve proved them all wrong” – but he also has expertise in his corner in the shape of his coach Dan Pfaff, the American who also coaches the Olympic gold medal-winning long jumper Greg Rutherford.
Yet, even if Pistorius is vanquished in the blue-riband event and unable to repeat the same trio of gold medals he won in Beijing, he has already served his primary function. His brave fight to be allowed to compete alongside able-bodied athletes (he hates that phrase as much as he dislikes the word “disabled”, telling anyone who will listen to “focus not on our disability but on our ability”) has led to Paralympians being taken far more seriously. In the process, he has helped the Paralympics – which began at the 1948 London Olympics when Stoke Mandeville Hospital surgeon Dr Ludwig Guttmann staged an International Wheelchair Games to run alongside that year’s Olympics – break out of its sporting ghetto.
The strides taken by Paralympic sport are still not quick enough for many people. On Nicky Campbell’s Radio 5 talk-in show earlier this week, a caller who had suffered from polio as a child wondered why a paralympic gold medal winner receives less financial benefit from his triumph than an Olympian gold medallist. He can relax. Even in the arena of filthy lucre, disabled sport has come of age, with Pistorius second only to Usain Bolt in sponsorship and endorsement earnings among athletes.
That is the effect that Oscar Pistorius has had upon the perception of disabled sport, which is why this week’s 100 metres race is rightly the most eagerly awaited race in the history of Paralympic sport.
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