Oscar Pistorius, track and field runner from Johannesburg, South Africa, is perhaps the Olympics’ most controversial figure, and its most inspirational athlete. He is the first double amputee to compete in the Games. Nicknamed the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius, 25, competes on two J-shaped carbon fiber legs attached at his knees. His prosthetic legs, designed in Iceland and branded the Flex-Foot Cheetah, make a signature clicking sound his opponents say they hear when he comes from behind to overtake them on the track.
Pistorius was born without fibulas. Doctors amputated his legs below the knees when he was 11 months old. But as he grew up, he stubbornly refused to let his disability keep him from sports. In 2005, at age 18, he placed sixth in the 400-meter race at the South African Championships. Race after race, he improved his form and became faster. Fast enough, in fact, to set his sights on the Olympics.
But his performances beg a seemingly ridiculous question: could a double amputee have an advantage in Olympic competition? Where does the gavel fall between technology and talent? Pistorius had to submit to scientific research to prove that, although his carbon fiber legs allow him to run, they do only that—a medium through which his fast-twitch muscles can physiologically take over and do the job. Just like a natural runner.
Regardless, his road to London was littered with potholes. Long story short: based on information from a study claiming Pistorius used 25 percent less energy than other runners, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) banned him from competing in 2007. He hired a legal team that proved the study was flawed, and demanded a new study. Eventually, the IAAF overturned the decision. For a year, a team of three scientists took a closer look at Pistorius’ oxygen consumption, leg movements, and endurance, among other factors. The scientists found he metabolized oxygen the same way as other runners, but he ran in a mechanically different stride. He was cleared to compete.
He qualified for the Olympics just three weeks before opening ceremonies—the debate still sizzling. And although he choked on his start for his 400-meter semifinal race (after his season’s best time of in the prelims of 45:44 seconds), his Olympic story isn’t over yet. Pistorius will suit up for South Africa as part of its team for the 4 x 400 meter relay heat Thursday, and if they make it, the finals on Friday. This is his last chance for an Olympic gold medal.
Whether or not he wins, one thing is certain. Pistorius remains an inspiration to many for the barriers he hurdled in order to compete in the Olympics—and to silence the doubters questioning him as he traversed through the often-conflicting arenas of science, technology, and sports.
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