Olympic 400-meter dash semifinals awaiting double amputee

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LONDON -- Oscar Pistorius emerged from a tunnel in Olympic Stadium on Saturday morning, walking in a single-file line with seven other runners who were about to compete against him in the preliminary round of the 400-meter dash.

In the stands, he saw a few friendly faces, including his 89-year-old grandmother, amid a sea of strangers. Applause rang out all over the stadium, and people rose from their seats to take pictures of Mr. Pistorius, hoping to snap a little piece of history.

For the first time, a double-amputee was about to participate in an Olympic event.

And so Mr. Pistorius, a 25-year-old South African who runs using two carbon prosthetic limbs, was less an athlete who has trained the last six years with this day in mind and more a symbol.

Mr. Pistorius was born without fibulae in his lower legs, which were amputated by the time he turned 1. On this picturesque day in East London, he served as a shining light to many with disabilities, and the sun's rays bounded off his metallic limbs to reflect his effect.

"This is the Blade Runner!" a man yelled over the PA system. "Oscar Pistorius!"

Standing at the starting block, Mr. Pistorius brought his hands above his head and clapped along with the crowd.

The spectators who could most identify with Mr. Pistorius were placed around a ring of Olympic Stadium atop the first level of seating. It was there that Anthony Stone sat in his wheelchair with his 9-year-old daughter, Robin, sitting to his left.

Mr. Stone, 50, a native of London, has had multiple sclerosis for seven years. He no longer has feeling in his legs and is losing it more in his arms with each day. To do his job in public relations, he has to use voice-recognition technology for his thoughts to translate to the computer screen.

He did not plan to watch Mr. Pistorius race when he bought the tickets, but it was a beautiful coincidence.

"It's a great inspiration," Mr. Stone said. "He's really pushing the boundaries of what's possible. And also, he's helping to change attitudes, and that's the big thing. It goes into the question, 'What is a disability?' And so much of it is perceptions."

'Is it unfair?'

Everybody can appreciate Mr. Pistorius' story. Still, his inclusion in the Olympics has raised questions about whether his prosthetic limbs provide him an advantage over the able-bodied men who run alongside him. Mr. Stone said his daughter's initial response to seeing Mr. Pistorius was telling.

"It's not fair," Robin said.

And, despite the natural urge for Mr. Stone to root for Mr. Pistorius, he had to agree with her.

"It's quite the advantage that his legs give him," Mr. Stone said. "I'll be interested to see in 20 years time, if technological advances continue, then he will be the fastest man on Earth. You can see the way it's going."

Mr. Stone didn't know how he was going to feel watching Mr. Pistorius race. When the gun went off, Mr. Pistorius kept an eye on the leader, Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, and made sure to stay close to him.

Mr. Pistorius certainly stood out in the pack, his curved limbs hitting the track and springing forward, building speed as he went.

In 45.44 seconds, it was over.

Mr. Pistorius advanced to tonight's semifinals along with 23 others, finishing 16th out of the 49 who ran. He'll need to make the top eight to advance to Monday night's final, but his goal from the beginning was to make the semifinal -- and, of course, to soak up everything about the Olympic experience.

"I found myself smiling on the starting blocks, which is very rare," Mr. Pistorius said.

Nearly an hour after his heat had ended, Mr. Pistorius stood at the top of a staircase and watched one of the other heats. As his competitors sprinted around the track, Mr. Pistorius clapped with the crowd, cheering them home.

The other 400-meter runners appear to have accepted Mr. Pistorius' differences and welcomed him into their select fraternity.

"Is it unfair?" said Erison Hurtault of Dominica. "It's really tough for me to say that a guy with no legs has an advantage in track and field. This is a sport where they ban people for two years when they take the wrong sleeping pill. There are guys who take drugs. He's the least of my worries."

Mr. Hurtault went to South Africa to train with Mr. Pistorius in 2009 and liked what he saw.

"He crosses the finish line at practice, he throws up," said Mr. Hurtault, one of the runners who finished behind Mr. Pistorius on Saturday. "I never throw up. I see him working hard."

That apparently is Mr. Pistorius' reputation.

"I think it's fair," said American sprinter Tony McQuay. "It's not like he broke the world record the first day he stepped on the track. He's out here working hard just like everybody else."

Prosthetics not 'energy source'

In 2007, Pistorius was initially banned by the International Association of Athletic Federations from competing for a spot in the 2008 Beijing Games.

Sports lawyer David Feher -- who grew up in Forest Hills and now works for Winston & Strawn, LLP, in New York -- partnered with Jeffrey Kessler to represent Mr. Pistorius in front of the Court of Arbitration For Sport in the spring of 2008.

Mr. Feher, who woke up to the good news of Mr. Pistorius' result on Saturday, said there is no evidence that prosthetic limbs like Mr. Pistorius' give him any edge.

"People will say, 'Oh, his prosthetics are lighter than it would be if he had feet,' " Mr. Feher said. "But they forget that calf muscles and ankle muscles are an energy source, and Oscar doesn't have that. Oscar's prosthetics don't contain any energy source whatsoever. They're a spring, and no spring adds more energy than it's given. On top of that, Oscar's other muscles have to work harder to make up for his other losses."

Mr. Pistorius won a unanimous reversal of the IAAF's ruling, allowing him to pursue Beijing.

He did not make the South African team, however. Now that Mr. Pistorius has made his debut in London, Mr. Feher sees his helping of Mr. Pistorius as one of his greatest career accomplishments.

"Oscar is just like all of us," Mr. Feher said, "and that's what really this is about, remembering that. We have to treat each other as brothers and sisters and not as some type of other."

Sitting near Mr. Stone on the wheelchair accessible row was Mark McGrath, 49, of Bristol, England. Mr. McGrath has had muscular dystrophy for the past 12 years.

He enjoyed watching Mr. Pistorius in person on Saturday, but he didn't want to give the South African an undue amount of praise.

"What he's done is inspiring," Mr. McGrath said. "But people say that people in that situation are brave. They're not. They're just dealing with what they've got, and they get on with it. He's got on with his approach to life, which happens to be athletics, and he's doing really well."

Mr. Pistorius is doing so well that Mr. Stone has an idea of what the future of track and field may look like.

"Everybody is going to want a pair," he joked.


More Olympic coverage. Sports, Page D-1


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 5, 2012 4:00 AM


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