LONDON — Before another scientific journal, retired sprinter Michael Johnson’s ego or track’s stopwatch police ruin one of the great stories of these Olympic Games, let’s crystallize the emotions of Olympic Stadium on Saturday, about 10:45 a.m., when a man with no legs below his knees began blazing around the track.
The crowd of 80,000 roared because they felt happy for Oscar Pistorius, not sorry for him. They rose from their seats in awe, not uncomfortable ambiguity.
Twenty-four years after a year-old baby had his legs amputated in a South African hospital after being born without fibulae, that same child had grown into one of the world’s fastest 400-meter runners.
“The Blade Runner,” they call Pistorius. “The fastest man with no legs.” The 25-year-old motored toward the finish line of his preliminary heat here, his prosthetics click-click-clicking as he passed a Russian to qualify for Sunday’s semifinals.
“The experience to be here is a dream come true,” said Pistorius, the first amputee to run in an able-bodied Olympic Games. “I’ve worked for six years to try and make the 400 standard, and to come out today is just an unbelievable experience.”
He added, “It’s very difficult to separate the occasion from the race.”
Harder still is separating historical achievement from hot-button controversy. On the best day of his competitive life, Pistorius was not asked how many other children born without limbs he made feel whole again. Instead: Does a man with two ultra-light prosthetics have an unfair competitive advantage over able-bodied competitors?
“The moment in athletic history when engineered limbs outperform biological limbs has already passed,” two scientists told Sports Illustrated in 2009. Their findings were released in the Journal of Applied Physiology. They came out after the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned a ban by track and field’s international governing body and allowed Pistorius to compete against able-bodied runners in international competition.
Though the research has been equally refuted and supported by scientists, doctors and lawyers on both sides of the issue, the fight won’t go away: Is a double amputee more fortunate than any of us realized?
To all who ask, to those who have spent more money and hours on the science of “leg-swing times” than they have ensuring another child isn’t born without bones beneath his knees, I want to know:
Would you swap your two legs for Pistorius’s prosthetics to find out?
Johnson, the world record holder in the 400 (and formerly in the 200) and a friend of Pistorius, nonetheless declared, “My position is that because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors.” To Johnson, I want to know:
Are record times so much of your identity that you stay up late, worrying that a man with prosthetics is somehow a precursor to your marks being shattered by a Transformer — or, worse, a human Norelco razor?
To type-A track world, our gatekeepers of the almighty split time, how many more words will be spent explaining to able-bodied runners that, contrary to popular thinking for 2,000 years, athletes born without limbs were, in actuality, the lucky ones?
“If the blades give so much of an advantage, then why aren’t other athletes who have them running as fast as me?” Pistorius asks rhetorically. “People say I must have an advantage because my legs are lighter. But I’ve got less blood running through them and don’t have the tendons in my ankles. People don’t talk about that.
“What I believe in is the fairness of sport,” he added. “It isn’t an advantage. In my heart, I know what’s right and I wouldn’t be running if I had any doubt.’’
Nearly every one of his able-bodied peers supported him when asked after their 400-meter heats Saturday whether they thought Pistorius should run.
They essentially gave up their Olympic moment in order to answer questions about what it’s like to compete against a man with prosthetics for legs.
“It’s really tough for me to say a guy with no legs has an advantage in track and field,” said Luguelin Santos, the Dominican 400-meter runner in the lane beside Pistorius. “I know that if anything, I know it’s important to him to find out if it’s an advantage. This is a sport where they ban people for two years for taking the wrong sleeping pill.”
Santos added: “It’s just incredibly hard for me or anyone to root against him. I mean, I think he should be able to compete unless somebody finds some conclusive evidence otherwise.”
It probably helps that Pistorius is not a medal threat. His 45.44 second time in his heat, his second-best time this year, could put him in Lane 1 or 8 of the 400-meter final but is not elite enough to begin threatening livelihoods.
If Pistorius were gold-medal good, the debate would become more inflamed. But at least his competitors fully understood the significance of a man overcoming astonishing odds to run in his own lane at an Olympics.
A baby born without bones in his lower legs is now among the fastest men to run the oval in the world!
Oscar Pistorius grew up with his mother never treating him differently, who told one son to put his shoes on before school and the other to put his prosthetics on. “In my world, I just looked at my prosthetics as my shoes,” Pistorius said.
When he runs Sunday, stop and take it in as a human being, without having to to dwell on the how and why. For at least one day, let’s start commemorating and stop calibrating.
For previous Mike Wise columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.