|Oscar Pistorius' condition will make his story one of the most-discussed at this year's Olympics. (AP)|
One of the most controversial and emotional circumstances in Olympics history began in October 1987. That's when 11-month-old Oscar Pistorius had his lower legs surgically removed. The cells and bones below the knee had to go due to a condition known as congenital absence of the fibula. It's because of that misfortune that Pistorius is now seen as a worldwide hero.
In a few weeks, Pistorius will run at the Olympics. He'll be the first of his kind to do so, and nearly a billion people will witness a new kind of history. It's incredible. Completely, unpredictably, entirely spectacular. The essence of the Olympics, really, even if we've never seen such essence before.
Pistorius is able to run because he snugs his stumps into two baskets attached to carbon-fiber blades known as Flex-Foot Cheetahs, and because he runs on artificial lobes instead of fully fleshed legs, a lot of people are confused about how to feel.
Is he gaining an advantage? It's the question that will forever remain with Pistorius, no matter how much science can discern from his unique Olympic existence. Primarily, doubters (and these doubters will likely soon be donned with some sort of moniker) want to know how fair it is that Pistorius is propelled by carbon fiber. Does he have that edge over other runners because he's using science instead of full legs, ligaments, muscles and bones? The research on him is sweeping and specific, yet still without resolute consensus.
Pistorius -- whose Twitter avatar will instantly puncture, then inflate, your heart -- will run in the 400-meter dash and grip a baton in the 4 x 4 400-meter relay on those precious, life-making J-shaped appendages. It won't be his first flash with fame. In 2011, he was an alternate on the 4 x 400 relay team that took home silver at the World Championships in South Korea. He's run competitively for eight years now and those in the track world know his story and tribulations very well.
But, unfortunately, this is where the conversation stands with Pistorius as we turn to London. Instead of near-universal applause over the man for getting there -- or for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) having its 2007 decision to ban Pistorius from international competition overturned -- we're still left with dispute.
I write this column with as much lament over the reaction as I do praise for Pistorius' accomplishments. It's a damn shame that we've got to turn this into a debate, something that will propel discussion and propped-up banter that, from over here, seems a bit disingenuous and at times completely misses the point. That Pistorious' disposition, which would eliminate 99 percent (in fact, upon reflection of self as well as the world, that estimation seems much too low) of the human race from winding up where he is, has become a reason for question is just rotten. And here I am, a part of the discussion, albeit it attacking the issue on Pistorius' behalf.
I also can't help but wonder how real this debate will be. It's out there, yeah. There are doubters, for certain. It definitely makes for some sort of television -- whether good or not, I can't say. When Pistorius runs on Aug. 4 and all the cameras flash before and after the gun goes off -- that will be good television.
Have we considered the other runners yet? What have they said? What do they think? What does Pistorius' competition really believe or feel about his presence at the Games? To this point, none of his competitors have publicly stated a negative word about his inclusion in the races. Maybe that's the muffled athlete abiding by their handlers and the PR standards of today, but it is significant. No one's word, or objection, or questioning would mean as much in this conversation as Pistorius' contemporaries. They are thankfully mum so far, perhaps because they know just how near-impossible it is to even get to this point. To cast off a man without legs seems antithetical to the already-unforgiving and rarely publicly lauded athletic craft.
Pistorius' artificial limbs are only part of the discussion, though. The 25-year-old is only going to the Games because South Africa, his native country, voted him into their 150-person pool of athletes after he failed to qualify the old-fashioned way at the end of June. Pistorius didn't run the required 45.30 time in the 400 at the African Championships. The 45.30 is known as the “A” standard time for immediate Olympic inclusion. However, because he ran 45.07 and 45.20 in the past year, his times were both good and recent enough to give him the bid. Because South Africa did not have a runner post faster times in the qualifier, Pistorius earned a bid.
Detractors see it as a sympathy vote, a reason to get a good story up to London. These people also walk around with black inside their chests, eyes everlastingly squinted at the world. Pistorious -- donned “Blade Runner,” which is obviously one of the best nicknames in the history of sports -- has perpetually been backed by South African Olympic committee chief Gideon Sam. One of the best quotes associated with Pistorius' London bid came from Sam when he said, "We are not taking passengers to London."
Pistorius is certainly no passenger. He's won gold in every major Paralympic sprinting event and has eight international/Paralympic medals to his name.
It says something sick about worldwide society that Pistorius has found a pushback on his quest for the best competition. Especially so when you consider the pragmatism of the events to come. Pistorius is highly unlikely to medal, so really, what's the big damn deal? His times less than two weeks ago at qualifying indicate his inferiority against the best of the best, as does his history of running in the 400, which comes nowhere near the top times of the best runners in the world.
And even if the advantage is gained by the slimmest of imbalances between man and apparatus, what runner could fault Pistorious if, by some chance, he wound up with a medal? Who would be able to do what Pistorious has done? This is athletic-enabled competition in the most primitive of appendage-like technology. There are no buttons or latches electronic latches fused to Pistorious' muscles, skin or nerves. He is not an avatar of the future. He's running on equipment that's encroaching on being two decades old. It would be one thing to have this conversation in 1996.
If anything -- if the debate being held is real -- the seedy side of it is how uncomfortable Pistorius makes some. Hate this, but seems true. After all, the IAAF put out a verbal memo to South Africa to strongly reconsider sending Pistorius to international competition after it was deemed his blades did not give him a definable, unfair advantage against other runners. Does the IAAF not want cripples in the Olympics? Does it think Pistorius is one? Should he and all impaired athletes forever be cordoned to the Paralympics? How hideous.
Pastorius will run in London. He'll almost definitely finish out the medaling. The story will still be terrific and inspire more people to participate than whatever Usain Bolt, Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps achieve.
Then, a few weeks later, he'll do it again, in London's Paralympics, where he's sure to bring home more inventory around his neck. It's not where Pistorius belongs, because there is no rightful specific place for him outside of a track. Any track. Every track. He is not handicapped in competition. He is a runner, no matter the venue or competition. Let him have that so others in the future can as well.