Saturday, August 04, 2012

Phil Sheridan: Pistorius, through to 400 semifinals, transforms Olympic Games

United States
United States' women's 4 x 100-meter medley relay team Dana Vollmer, right, Rebecca Soni, center, and Missy Franklin, left, celebrate as their teammate finishes, winning the yeam a gold medal, at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Phil Sheridan, Inquirer Sports Columnist

LONDON - At long last, the Oscar Pistorius story wasn't about the artificial legs that carry him. It was about the flesh-and-blood heart and indomitable spirit that define him.

When the gun sounded in the packed Olympic Stadium and Pistorius pushed off the starting blocks with those carbon-fiber blades, the years of bans and appeals and lawyers evaporated. He was transformed in that moment from curiosity to Olympian, and the Olympics were transformed even more profoundly.

If you could hold the tears back watching the 25-year-old South African sprint 400 meters to qualify for Sunday's semifinals, you gave up the fight listening to him speak, graciously and humbly and gratefully.

"I've been blessed by the Lord," said this man who was born without fibulas in either leg, who became a double amputee at 11 months old, who learned to walk and to play and to run on prosthetic legs.

Most of us would call that cursed, and maybe that's why most of us wouldn't be running in the Olympics. Maybe the most surprising and moving thing about Pistorius was the sheer joy he took in competing.

"I have cramps from smiling so much," Pistorius said. "As I came out of the tunnel, I saw my friends and family here. My grandmother, she's 89, was here with a South African flag. It was just a great experience."

He smiled. When a man shouted, "Sexy beauty," from the stands, he laughed.

And then he ran.

There is no way to overstate the magnitude of what Pistorius accomplished just by competing here. This was Jesse Owens in Berlin plus Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, a moment when sports gives the free-for-all we call humanity a collective push forward.

"It was difficult to separate the occasion from the race," Pistorius said, although that was his task. The victory of earning this chance would have been hollow, for him, if he hadn't performed to his own satisfaction. He finished second in his heat in 45.44 seconds.

"It's one thing being here," Pistorius said. "It's another thing performing when you're here. That, for me, is a task I take seriously. My goal was always to make it to my semifinal."

Running on prosthetic legs was one obstacle. The International Association of Athletics Federations, the international governing body for track and field, was a bigger one. It banned the use of any device that could give an athlete an advantage, then sponsored a scientific study that concluded Pistorius' blades did just that. That was in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Pistorius appealed and won, but was not able to qualify in time.

This is not a simple issue. The advances in technology in prosthetic limbs and joints are awe-inspiring and a source of hope for everyone facing life without all four limbs intact. But those advances very well could lead to prostheses that distort the nature of competition. It is a complex issue, and one the IAAF and all governing bodies are likely to have to address.

The mistake wasn't in trying to create a standard. It was in taking the position that Pistorius represented some kind of threat that had to be curbed before it was too late. The decent and honorable approach would have been to seek fair means to include Pistorius and every other athlete, rather than to exclude him.

The baseball owners who kept the major leagues all white had what they considered good reasons, too. They just happened to be dead wrong, and so was the IAAF.

"If it was such an amazing piece of equipment that's been around for 14 years," Pistorius said, "then how come thousands of other Paralympic athletes aren't breaking world records and challenging even a 45- or 48- or 49-second 400 meters?"

In other words, it has taken Pistorius the same dedication and commitment, in combination with his natural athleticism, to become an elite runner as it took Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt. How can anyone justify preventing him from competing at the highest level he can achieve?

It is just as unacceptable to turn away a generation of young people maimed and scarred by the wars we've sent them to fight. The nature of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the improvements in medical care that allowed them to survive injuries in the field, have caused a spike in the number of amputees coming back to the States.

They've given limbs, and some bureaucrats are going to deny them the chance to compete? They will not all become Olympians. That remains an honor reserved for the best of the best. But everyone, disabled or not, can draw inspiration from what Oscar Pistorius is doing here.

"I just want to represent my country well," he said.

He did better. He represented every country, every person, every heart and soul.


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