Oscar Pistorius achieves Olympic dream, advances to 400-meter semifinal

Double-amputee Oscar Pistorius raced in a heat for the 400 meter sprint at the London Olympics Friday, making history and more – finishing second to move on to the semifinal Sunday.

David J. Phillip/AP
South Africa's Oscar Pistorius starts in a men's 400-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London Saturday.

Scientists might not yet be able to agree on whether Oscar Pistorius should be allowed to compete in the Olympics, but it is undeniable that when he did on Saturday morning, it became an indelible moment in history of the Games.

Pistorius is a controversial figure for reasons utterly beyond his control. He has no legs below either of his knees, so he races the only way he can – with the carbon-fiber blades that have made him instantly recognizable the world over. And on Saturday, for once, the controversy stepped aside for 400 meters as a gracious man who has only ever wanted to race as fast and as fairly as he could at last had that chance on sport's grandest stage.

Pistorius covered the distance in 45.44 seconds – a time good enough to meet his Olympic goal of qualifying for Sunday's semifinal. Overall, his time was 16th best on the day.

Almost certainly, he will not win a medal in the final Monday night. In all likelihood, he won't even make it that far. But no matter what you think of his Cheetah Flex-Feet, Pistorius makes is almost impossible not to like the man himself. 

Between legal appeals to allow him to compete here and puke-inducing training sessions, "I've been working for six years to get here," he said. "I found myself smiling in the starting blocks, which is very unusual for the 400."  

An hour after the race, and about 55 minutes after he began talking to the media, he was still smiling. "I've still got goosebumps," he said. And he thanked the assembled journalists, repeatedly – apparently because that's just what he does.

From fellow athletes who might be jealous of the attention he receives or doubtful of whether his times are mechanically aided, there is not an unkind word. 

"I'm so glad to see him out here," said Erison Hurtault of Dominica, who has trained with Pistorius. "It's time for him to shine and show what he is made of. He's an incredibly hard worker."

America's Sanya Richards-Ross, who runs in the women's 400, has similar words. "He's not only an amazing athlete, but such a great person," she said at a pre-Olympics media summit. "Whenever you're around him, he's so positive."

Even in the glow of a life's ambition fulfilled Saturday, that optimistic effusiveness sought to share its joy with others. Without the hint of a complaint at being waylaid by the press, he admitted that he really would like to go watch replays of some of his friends' heats in the 400, "so I can send them messages."

With every word, he spins himself more into the fabric of the Olympics. Who embodies the ennobling strife of sport more than Oscar Pistorius, someone who became a double amputee at age 1?

He said: "My mother always said, 'It's not the person who gets involved and comes in last [that loses], it's the person who never gets involved."

Who embodies the ideal of athletic fellowship and joy more than Oscar Pistorius?

He said: We work so hard everyday, and on days like this you reward yourself by doing well. It shouldn't be a burden."

Who, really, deserves to be at the Olympics more than Oscar Pistorius?

Saturday gave its own answer, though the broader questions raised by Pistorius's participation will remain. 

Science suggests that for able-bodied sprinters, speed is not generated by moving your legs faster – virtually everyone from Usain Bolt to Bob Costas moves their legs through the air at the same rate. Rather, speed comes from applying greater force when your foot hits the ground. Olympic legend Jesse Owens essentially had it figured out when he said: “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”

Because his blades are significantly lighter than organic legs, however, Pistorius can churn his legs some 20 percent faster than every other runner on the track. This gives him a clear advantage, says Peter Weyand, who performed the research and runs the Southern Methodist University's Locomotor Performance Laboratory in Dallas

Others argue that further research could suggest offsetting drawbacks that mean Pistorius receives no net advantage. For example, Pistorius starts slower because he must stand upright to flex his blades, whereas other sprinters drive through the first few steps with their bodies low. At this point, science is not only split, but not sure if it has the whole story yet. 

At this point, science is not only split, but not sure if it has the whole story yet.

For his part, Pistorius has submitted to numerous scientific tests. "It's important to him to figure out if it is an advantage," said Hurtault.  

Hurtault notes that he does notice a different cadence to Pistorius's stride, but he's not about to concede that that makes his friend built for greater speed. "It's really tough for me to say that someone who has no legs has an advantage in track and field," he smiles.  

All he knows is that the man with no legs lining up in the blocks with him is much more alike than different.

"I see the same thing I have and everyone else has in him – he wants to compete against the best in the world," Hurtault said. "And that's why I'm glad to see him out here." 

2012 Olympic quiz, Part II: Are you a gold medalist?

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