Wednesday 7 December 2016

Lapping up attention on journey to summer

Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00

'Blade Runner' Oscar Pistorius has twin peaks to scale in the biggest year of his life, writes Marie Crowe

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THE sensation that is Usain Bolt may be the main focus of attention going into the London Olympics, but Oscar Pistorius isn't too far behind him. Everyone seems to want a piece of the South African and it's understandable. He is special.

The 400m runner was born with the congenital absence of fibulae and both of his legs were amputated when he was just 11 months old. He runs on a set of prosthetic legs which have earned him the nickname Blade Runner.

When it comes to discussing his disability there is no issue, he wants to educate people. If he is out and about and he sees a kid staring at him he will go over and explain why he has the blades and hope that the next time the kid sees someone with a disability they will understand.

Pistorius has never let his disability affect him, especially when it came to sport. From an early age he was determined that he would not be defined as an individual by his disability. At school, he played rugby, tennis, cricket and water polo, he boxed and wrestled and always focused on his abilities and not his disabilities. His attitude to himself also served to change people's perception of him.

The South African's athletics career took off as a result of a knee injury he sustained on the rugby field in 2003. Running was an important part of his rehab and he took to it straight away, started competing and was an instant sensation. He progressed at such a rate that at the Paralympics in Athens the following year he won two medals, a gold and a bronze, and in Beijing four years later he won another three gold medals.

In a few months, Pistorius hopes to become the first athlete to compete in both the Paralympics and the Olympics in the same year. Although he is on the right track to make it happen, he is not quite there yet. At a meet in Northern Italy last July he ran 45.07, a personal best and the A standard time for London.

However, in November the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee announced that in order to be selected for the South African team to compete at the Games he must run inside the 400m A standard time again between now and June.

Although Pistorius has been successful in the South African colours, things haven't always gone smoothly for him. In 2008, the IAAF ruled that the prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage and so he became ineligible to compete in able-bodied events. But he fought their decision and a few months later the ruling was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.

Then last August he was selected on the South African team for the World Athletics Championships in Daegu. He qualified for the 400m semi-final and also ran the relay semi-final. They set a national record in the race but when the team was picked for the final, Pistorius didn't make the cut. It was a bittersweet experience for him as his team-mates went on to win the silver medal in South Korea. At the time, he took to Twitter to express his frustration, and he admits now he is still disappointed with how it turned out but he's happy with his own accomplishments and content with his silver medal.

A few weeks after the World Championships, Pistorius had to fight his corner again, this time during an interview on BBC Radio Four.

"Some people regard you, no doubt, as an inspiration to Paralympic athletes, no question about that," said interviewer Rob Bonnet. "But it might also be said that you're an inconvenient embarrassment to the South African authorities and the IAAF because, effectively, you're taking them into uncharted ethical waters here. What's your reaction to that?"

Pistorious replied: "I think that's an insult to me and I think this interview is over." And he walked out of the room.

Looking back at it now, Pistorius is able to smile and wasn't perturbed at all by the question. "There is no animosity between the BBC and me," he said. "I have a good relationship with them, they are such a big organisation they can't be responsible for everyone. Unfortunately, that was just one interview that went badly and at the end of the day I need to remember that this is my career and it is not my life."

Pistorius isn't the only athlete trying to make the Olympics and Paralympics next year. Irish sprinter Jason Smyth is following the same path and although the pair have never met, the South African is well aware of Smyth and what he is capable of.

"I think Jason has had a phenomenal season. He ran a personal best of 10.22 and he has great things lining up for him for 2012. He definitely does his best to promote the Paralympic movement when he can and I have a lot of respect for him. I'd like to see him at both games. He is a very professional athlete, he has a number of good years ahead of him and I'm sure he will be in the mix at the games."

Smyth's time of 10.22 qualifies him as a B standard athlete for London, but as Ireland are only sending A standard times he will have to knock his time down to 10.18 if he wants to make it.

Pistorius thinks sending athletes to big games is vital for experience and development and if they have the B standard qualification time then they should go.

And Smyth isn't the only Irish athlete Pistorius is familiar with. He raced against David Gillick in the 400m last year in New York. At that time, Gillick was based in America, training under Lance Brauman. He was struggling to regain full fitness after suffering a calf injury and was recording times well outside his personal best of 44.77.

"I felt quite sorry for David when I saw him in June because he hadn't been home for a long time. He had been in the US since January and he still had one or two competitions to race in. I told him he needs to get home for a while and relax for a bit."

Not long after they met, Gillick moved home and returned to his former training base in Loughborough University in a bid to get his Olympic hopes back on track.

The summer will be a busy time for Pistorius and trying to peak for both games won't be easy, especially as he is running in so many different events.

Along with the pressure of trying to compete as a professional athlete, Pistorius also has to deal with the pressure that's on him to break down barriers for people with disabilities. He has fought very hard for the right to be treated the same as able-bodied athletes.

Outside of athletics, Pistorius has a wide range of interests; he loves rugby particularly, and he also keeps racehorses and has a filly by the famous Irish stallion Galileo.

For now Pistorius is focusing on the future, he is on the road to London, training hard and preparing for what could be the most significant year of his life.

Oscar Pistorius is a BT Ambassador. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Visit www.bt.com/london2012

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