When Oscar Pistorius kneels in the starting blocks for the Paralympic sprints next week, he may feel a sense of deja-vu. He was here last month, too – the first amputee ever to compete with able-bodied runners in the Olympics.
"I had cramps in my cheeks where I was smiling so much on that start line," remembers 25-year-old Pistorius, who still hears the roar of the crowd when he goes to sleep at night. "I heard this whistle, I knew that whistle, I looked up and it was my coach with my brother and sister and 89-year-old grandmother. Seeing them, I [remembered] in that moment everything I had done to be there on that start line, everyone in my life who had supported me."
It had been some struggle to get there. He was born without calf bones, for a start – and by the time he was a year old both his legs had been amputated below the knee. But perhaps his biggest obstacle has been the athletics governing body – who initially wouldn't let the South African take part in able-bodied events. Critics argued that the prosthetic blades he uses instead of legs gave him an unfair advantage, and – in relay races – might trip up other athletes.
Ironically, Pistorius had grown up in Pretoria playing able-bodied sport. He played rugby, water polo and tennis at school – the latter two at regional level – and only turned to sprinting and the Paralympics after a rugby-related injury at 16. "I was introduced to Ampie Louw – who is still my coach today – and over the first few weeks he saw something in me and it turned out I had a talent for running."
Talent is a modest way of putting it. Nicknamed the Blade Runner, Pistorius is the pre-eminent Paralympian sprinter. Despite failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, Pistorius won the 100m, 200m and 400m in the Paralympics that followed, setting three world records in the process. But this time around, he has his work cut out. In order to make the Olympics (he qualified this time, but didn't make the final), Pistorius had to focus on his best event – the 400m – at the expense of the shorter sprints. "I've lost nearly two stone since Beijing to be the best 400m runner I can be, and I'm not built as a 100m sprinter any more," he admits. "It's going to be tough for sure."
While he's the first sprinter to compete in both events, Pistorius won't be drawn on comparisons between the Olympics and Paralympics – and argues that Paralympians should be treated like any other athlete. "To me, a race is a race," he says. "People will admire the athletes for what they achieve, not focusing on their disability."
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