WATCHED by his 89-year-old grandmother and with the date of birth and the date of death of his late mother, and inspiration, tattooed on his arm, Oscar Pistorius made history in the Olympic Stadium. The South African 400m runner became the first amputee to compete at the Games and not only that, he qualified for today’s semi-final, an experience the so-called Blade Runner later described as “mind-blowing.”
The 25-year-old got his carbon fibre running blades, home in a time of 45.44 sec, to finish second behind Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic. The roars that greeted the end of the race were not for Santos, of course, but for Pistorius. The applause was prolonged – not quite the crescendo that greeted Jessica Ennis’ every move – but
hugely impressive all the same.
There cannot have been a soul in the stadium who didn’t appreciate what this meant to Pistorius and how significant a moment it was in the history of the Olympics.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “I found myself smiling in the blocks which is very rare in the 400m. I saw my friends and family in the crowd, my 89-year-old grandmother was waving the South African flag. It’s difficult to separate the occasion from the race because you get so much energy from the crowd. You hear a lot of athletes saying the track’s quick, and I believe the track is fast, but the crowd is what’s really making it that much more enjoyable. I still had goosebumps an hour after I raced. To be out here, to know that we’ve sacrificed X amount to achieve this is really mind-blowing.”
For the four-time Paralympic champion this was a dream realised and the end of an incredibly long road. Pistorius, who had his lower legs amputated at 11 months old after being born without a fibula in either leg, won a legal battle over his blades with the IAAF in 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling they did not give him an unfair advantage.
Pistorius has spoken about his mother in moving terms this week and spoke about her again in the aftermath of his Olympic debut. Sheila Pistorius died when taking an allergic reaction to medication at the age of 42 when her son was just 15 years old. “I thought about my mother a lot today,” he said. “She was a bit of a hardcore person. She didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Sheila never made a big deal about the trauma in her boy’s life, he explained last week. “My mother said to us one morning: ‘Carl [his brother], you put on your shoes, and Oscar, you put on your prosthetic legs.’ And that was the last we heard of it. I didn’t grow up thinking I had a disability, I grew up thinking I had different shoes. I never saw a difference between disability and ability, I just played sport. My mother in particular always said to us: ‘A loser isn’t the person that gets involved and comes last, but the one who doesn’t get involved in the first place.’ That really rubbed off hard on us.”
The debate about whether Pistorius should have been allowed entry to the Olympics has raged for the longest time, with world record holder Michael Johnson among those raising concerns recently. “If I have to listen to the
5 per cent of negativity, I wouldn’t be here,” said Pistorius. “I have to rely on the 95 per cent of the support I get from the public. People may think I just turn up at races and run. No, it is not like that. 400m is a very difficult competition. In order to cover that distance I still have to work hard and train hard.”
“It’s one thing being here, it’s another thing performing when you’re here and that for me is a task I take seriously,” he said. “I had a really good race tactic which worked well. It just shows me that my coaching staff have done a great job to help me peak at the right time. It was always my goal to make the semi-final and I’ve been able to do so.”
His journey has brought him fame, not that he has asked for it, but it has happened regardless. “Fame is one thing I don’t really enjoy. I am blessed if I get a letter from a kid or the admiration I get from the public. But fame doesn’t make you run faster on the track: hard work does. Being here is one of the biggest achievements in my career. I am proud of representing my country in the Olympics. Once you are here, however, the pressure will grow on you and want to perform well. I would like to put in a good performance too.”
That was a hell of a start yesterday, a beginning that brought out a heart-warming response from his fellow runners. Grenada’s Kirani James, the 19-year-old world champion, said: “He is out here making history and we should all respect that and admire that. I just see him as another athlete, as another competitor, but most importantly as a human being, another person.” His story is an epic one, but it is not yet over. A semi-final today – and a chapter yet to be written.