Oscar Pistorius makes Olympic history, advances to 400 semifinal

By Rick Maese

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competes during a preliminary heat of the men's 400 meters. (REUTERS/Phil Noble)

With the crowd at Olympic Stadium cheering him on, Oscar Pistorius crouched in the starting blocks Saturday and couldn’t help but smile.

“The experience to be here is a dream come true,” said the South African sprinter. “I’ve worked for six years to try and make the 400 standard, and to come out today is just an unbelievable experience.”

Running on a pair of prosthetic legs, Pistorius became the first amputee to compete in an Olympic track race and was a crowd favorite from the moment he stepped onto the track Saturday morning. While he knew gold in the 400-meter here wasn’t likely, he still wasn’t content to simply show up in London.

“It’s one thing being here and another thing performing here… My goal was to make the semifinal tomorrow,” he said.

And he did that, finishing second in his qualifying heat Saturday. Pistorius had no problem advancing, finishing in 45.44 seconds, his second-best mark of the year. The semifinals will take place on Sunday.

“It’s very difficult to separate the occasion from the race. …Just being here is a tremendous experience,” he said. “You draw enough from the crowd and the occasion.”

Pistorius is known as the Blade Runner because he wears blade-shaped prosthetics. He has competed in the Paralympics but fought for years to be included in the Olympics. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the blades do not give him an advantage over other runners. (Curious as to how Pistorius runs? Check out this graphic.)

Pistorius was coming to London to help as one of the runners in the pool for the 4×400 relay, but at the last minute the South African Olympic Committee named him to the 400 individual roster as well. Pistorius will also compete in the Paralympics in London, which immediately follow the Olympics.

After Saturday’s heats, Pistorius’s competitors answered several questions about the South African. There was no expressed outrage or chatter of any competitive advantage; most, in fact, praised him.

“I felt inspiration to see him – emotion and inspiration,” said Dominican sprinter Luguelin Santos.

“It takes a lot of courage,” said Kirani James, of Grenada.

”A lot of people when they don’t have legs, they give up. They don’t continue to work for their dream.” That last quote was from American Bryshon Nellum and needless to say, he won’t soon take his own legs for granted.

Nearly four years ago, Nellum, a 23-year old Los Angeles native, was leaving a Halloween party when admitted gang members opened fire, mistaking Nellum for a rival. Gunfire hit both of Nellum’s legs and he required surgery on both.

He couldn’t get on his feet for three weeks, slowly graduating from wheelchair to crutches, then from walking to jogging.

“I wasn’t able to compete,” he said, “but I knew how it felt not to be able to use your legs.”

The assailants pleaded no contest to attempted murder and were sentenced to 15 years in state prison. As for Nellum, his legs healed and he again became an elite competitive runner. His 45.29-finish in Saturday’s 400 heat qualified him for the Sunday’s semifinals. He’ll run in the third heat Sunday, one race after Pistorius.

“I have my legs, so I can’t really relate to it,” Nellum said. “Like I said, he’s out here running the same distance we’re running. We’re all human.”

“I’m definitely inspired,” he added.