South African runner Oscar Pistorius was born with a genetic malformation that caused him to be missing several bones in each leg. His parents made the difficult choice to amputate both his legs at the knees to give him a chance to walk normally with prosthetics (the other option was, essentially, to not amputate and have their child use a wheelchair).
Fast forwarding to his late teens, Pistorius injured himself playing rugby(!), and was forced to do rehab. His doctors suggested he try running, and got him equipped with Cheetahs, carbon-fiber prostheses designed for running.
And run he did. Below the jump, you can see the man now known as "the Blade Runner" in one of his first races.
[The race itself starts at about 5 minutes in.]
Before that day, no one in Pistorius' class had ever run 200 meters in less than 25 seconds.
Despite taking nearly two seconds to get off the starting blocks, Pistorius did it under 23.5 seconds. And then, as if that weren't enough, he went on to win the gold medal at the 2004 Paralympics . . . in under 22 seconds.
Think about that for a moment: Usain Bolt made headlines when he beat his own world record in the 100-meter dash, bringing the record down from 9.69 seconds to 9.58 seconds.
In one event, Pistorius, who, like Bolt had been running seriously for a very short period of time, brought the world record down by over 3 seconds.
Pistorius' record was hardly the front-page story that Usain Bolt's 2008 Olympics performance was, when Bolt ran in 9.69 seconds (and probably could have gone significantly faster had he not started celebrating before crossing the finish line). [Please note: I am not going to get into an argument over whether it was showboating or pure emotion; it's frankly irrelevant.] But I would argue that Pistorius's accomplishment is, like Bolt's, still one of the most impressive feats of athleticism I've seen in my life.
While Pistorius continued to train and compete against other amputee athletes, Pistorius then set his sights on an even grander goal: competing against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics.
This caused track and field's governing body, the IAAF, to argue that such prostheses actually give him an unfair advantage relative to athletes with "biological" legs (my term), and, in what could be called the "Oscar Pistorius rule," banned their use in competitions they sanction in 2007.
Pistorius appealed the ruling to the Court for Arbitration of Sport, and eventually won the appeal, giving him the chance to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. According to this editorial, the Court ruled that IAAF had not sufficiently proven their case (and that some members of IAAF seemed "hell-bent on banning him, regardless of whether science backed them up").
Unfortunately, he wasn't able to make the qualifying standard, and so did not compete in the Olympics there. He did, however, compete at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where he swept the 100-m, 200-m, and 400-m races.
Fast forward to 2011, where Pistorius has become not only a model for disabled athletes, but also a fashion model, too. Last month, in a meet in Lignano, Italy, Pistorius eclipsed his personal best in the 400-meter dash, finishing in 45.05 seconds. This time made him eligible for this year's World Championships, against athletes with biological legs, and may qualify him for next year's Olympics in London, too.
Is it possible that IAAF was right from the get-go, and that the prostheses do give Pistorius a blatantly unfair advantage? Yes, it is. Even the scientists who testified on Pistorius' behalf disagree on this issue. On the one hand, no one knows if the blades are actually more efficient than human legs, and they certainly are not prone to fatigue, but on the flip side they are much harder to control in wind and rain, and it takes Pistorius longer to get up to full speed. (And, to Pistorius's credit, he's said he won't compete against able-bodied athletes if it turns out he does have an explicit advantage.)
But, in any case, Pistorius did compete this weekend in Daegu, South Korea, in the 400-m race, against able-bodied athletes.
Here's his qualifying race (the top 4 advance):
Pistorius finished third, and was actually leading down the homestretch. Thus he will race again in the semifinals later this week.
It is admittedly unlikely that he will win, and it's not even a given he'll make the finals (his best time is well short of the fastest times this year in the 400-m), but the mere fact that he is able to compete against able-bodied athletes is remarkable.
I'll close with a quote from that editorial:
To make it meaningful as a competition of supposed equals, sport pigeonholes people — separating men and women, the able-bodied from the differently-abled. Pistorius is confounding such characterizations, reshaping our understanding of human ability and what constitutes "equals." That can only be good.
"He's forcing us to ask what makes someone human and what is athletic competition about?" Kram said.
And for that, Pistorius is doing the world a great favor.
[One last note: if you're interested in the technology of the blades, Wired did a story a few years ago focusing a bit more on them.]
2:53 AM PT: I wanted to thank the folks who run the Community Spotlight for promoting this diary. I realized after publishing that there were a few details I had left out, so I added a couple of sentences of explanation, along with a few more links related to his story.