A lean and sculpted Oscar Pistorius politely pushes aside a breakfast basket piled high with croissants and pastries. He stretches out his legs and gazes at the London skyline as he thinks of his fridge back home in Pretoria.
“I’ve got a little calendar on my fridge door and I’m ticking off the days until London 2012. That’s why I know we’re down to less than 430. It’s really getting close now.”
Pistorius laughs, but it seems striking that he should highlight the fact that 428 days (at the time of the interview) are left before the start of the London Olympics. As an athlete known as the “Blade Runner”, as a multiple paralympic record holder and serial gold-medal winner, it might be assumed Pistorius would concentrate on a different opening ceremony. But the South African is determined to make history next year by becoming the first disabled athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
He knows that 461 days remain before the Paralympics because Pistorius also aims to surpass his achievement in Beijing where, in 2008, he won three gold medals. “I’m excited about running the 4x100m relay,” he says of a fourth medal chance to supplement his individual events in the 100m, 200m and, his best race, the 400m.
“I ran it for the first time at the Paralympic world championships this January. We practised for only 20 minutes, but ended up fivehundredths of a second off the world record. The relay could be a big highlight.”
At those championships Pistorius lost a 100m race for the first time in seven years, to his closest rival, Jerome Singleton. He responded magnificently and, in March, achieved the 400m Olympic “B” qualifying mark of 45.61 seconds.
“I’m on track to achieve it and the closer we get to it, the hungrier I am. I’ve improved by nearly half a second over the past year, so I really should make it. The ability is there and so is the focus.”
Last week, at the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, he took two gold medals, winning the 100m in 11.04 seconds and the 400m in 47.28 seconds, taking nearly half a second off his Paralympic record.
The tottering Oscar
An extraordinary story began in November 1986, when a baby was born in Johannesburg. Oscar Pistorius was perfect, from his chubby thighs up to his bright little brain. But he had a genetic disorder in both his legs. Each was missing its fibula, the long bone running from below the knee joint down to the ankle. His parents confronted a stark choice. Should they prepare their child for life in a wheelchair or could they face sanctioning a double amputation?
When Oscar was 11 months old, Henke and Sheila Pistorius decided on amputation. A South African surgeon, Gerry Versveld, successfully severed both legs and, within six months, a tottering toddler took his first step on a set of fibreglass pegs. Oscar’s childhood was still bookended by heartache. His parents divorced when he was six and, far more devastatingly, his mother died when he was just 15.
But he developed startling self-belief as, inspired by his mother, he played rugby, water polo and tennis not far below junior provincial standard. He discovered running only after he had been injured in a rugby match. During rehabilitation he showed a rare talent for sprinting on prosthetic legs.
Pistorius competed at his first Paralympics in Athens eight months later. Aged 17 in 2004, he just lost the 100m final, but won gold in the 200m. He might have made it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 had he not been banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) the year before.
Showing the same insensitivity it would exhibit in 2009 during the gender furore surrounding Caster Semenya, who trains at the same Pretoria track as Pistorius, the IAAF stooped to spying on him and then announced its tests proved his “blades” gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes. Pistorius refused to buckle. He gathered some renowned scientists around him and coolly demolished the IAAF’s case at the court of arbitration for sport. He was granted permission to run in world and Olympic competition.
“I thought I’d be ecstatic,” Pistorius remembers, “but it was more a case that at last I could get back to doing what I’m meant to be doing. The IAAF and I are getting on quite nicely now.”
Convinced that he will face no further legal challenges, he reacts with interest when told that David James, a sports engineer at Sheffield Hallam University, still argues that Pistorius’s “Cheetah Flex-Foot” blades give him a “distinct advantage” in the last half of a 400m race. James appears to ignore the glaring disadvantage Pistorius encounters in the first 200m when, without ankles to power him from the blocks, his passive blades are of limited use. Instead, James suggests that advances in modern technology could lead to someone, wearing high-tech blades, running 100m in eight seconds by 2016.
Pistorius, who has little hope of making a 400m Olympic final, acknowledges the rocketing rate of technology. “You probably could run 100m in eight seconds because people are coming up with pretty radical ideas. But they’d never be legal. Whenever we make any modifications, we have to send them to the IAAF. We have to submit the design and explain the reasons for the modified composition and then it tests it and says whether or not it’s fine. We can’t just slap on changes and turn up at the race.”
Has Pistorius tried out any radical designs — just for fun? “The prosthetic companies we work with are medically based. They’re not trying anything superhuman. But they do cool stuff with feet. One company makes an advanced foot worth thousands of pounds. It can make 55 readings a second, so if you’re walking uphill it senses the incline and lifts the [prosthetic] foot higher. It also has a USB in it, which I noticed when they asked me to test it.”
Pistorius cackles mischievously. “I plugged my iPod into it and this scientist [in Reykjavik] came in. They’re very serious and he shouted: ‘No! You can’t do that!’ I said: ‘Listen, you should put a memory stick in here and I could load my music into my leg.’ I thought it was quite funny. He didn’t. So I took it out, but it had charged my iPod. That night, we went out for dinner and I still had these feet on. I was relaxed and had my legs crossed at the ankles. But, when it was time to leave, it turned out that the batteries in the one foot had gone flat. It wouldn’t move and, of course, this was the foot that had charged my iPod.”
He tells various airport anecdotes about the trouble he has run into with his legs. “At Heathrow the security guys thought my legs were rocket launchers. The worst was in Amsterdam [when Pistorius was suspected of being an international terrorist and handcuffed]. My phone was flat and I’d packed my wallet in my luggage, so I couldn’t call anyone or buy any food. In the end they’d let me go only if I got an affidavit from the police station and I’d just told the police exactly what I thought of them. I had to go back and say: ‘Sorry, I really didn’t mean it — and can I have an affidavit now?'”
‘It’s just life’
Pistorius has also fallen on the track. “We’ve had serious training accidents. Once a bolt came off the back of my leg. The guy who had changed the alignment on my leg had put in a different bolt and it was too short. The bolt stripped out and I hit the deck at 45km/h. The tartan is really dirty and disgusting and I had chunks of it in me.”
How did Pistorius cope when even bigger chunks were taken out of him? “Fifteen is a tough age to lose your mother. It’s strange. In her will, she said we must throw a party when she passed away and so we did. We celebrate her every year, but we [his brother and sister] make an issue of not calling each other that day and being all morbid. The way we handle her loss is that we’re more grateful for the time we had with her. My father wasn’t around much when we grew up. It’s the same now. He lives and works very far from, me on a dolomite mine.”
Do they talk on the phone? “Mmmm, not much. We chat about once a month. He’s a cool guy, but he’s more of a mate. He’s not much of a parent. It’s just life.”
Pistorius shows the kind of bracing courage that attracts the glittering eye of Hollywood. Tom Hanks has, supposedly, long been beguiled by the Blade Runner story. “Oh, the movie stuff,” Pistorius says with a shrug. “I enjoy my privacy, so I never wanted to be famous. And I like to think the story of my life is not yet over.”
He is already a remarkable athlete but, over the next 475 days, Pistorius might become a truly iconic sporting figure. As he strives to burst onto the Olympic stage with even greater impact than he has achieved as a Paralympian, the 24-year-old is aware of wider responsibilities.
“One of my goals is to educate people about disability. I go to a shopping centre after training in my shorts and a kid will stare at my prosthetic legs. The mother or father turns the kid’s face away and says: ‘Don’t stare.’
But they don’t take time to explain it. So I’ll go up to the kid and say, ‘My name’s Oscar and I’ve got these really cool legs. My own legs got bitten off by this huge shark.’ If the mother’s good looking, I’ll say: ‘They fell off because I didn’t eat my vegetables.’ Then I’ll explain it so the next time they see prosthetic legs it won’t be so weird. My disability has never been a negative because the way other people perceive you is the way you perceive yourself.”
Pistorius rightly regards himself as a future Olympic athlete and a Paralympic champion. “I don’t want to be treated differently to any other athlete. If I do badly in a competition, I want people to be honest. The same goes if I do well. That’s the only thing that motivates me, the fact that I’m an athlete. I’m a runner.” —