“I do not focus on my disability – it is a part of me, it does not define me”

Oscar Pistorius

On Saturday 4 August, Oscar Pistorius will make history. When he settles into the blocks – fingers meticulously placed behind the white line, back arched and muscles tensed in anticipation of the starter’s gun – he will become the first ever amputee runner to compete in the Olympic Games. Not only will Pistorius line up for South Africa in the 400m and 4x400m relay, but less than one month later he will step out onto the same track to defend his three Paralympic titles (100m, 200m and 400m in the T44 class).

Pistorius, known as the ‘Blade Runner’ because of the carbon-fibre limbs he races in, was born in Johannesburg 25 years ago without a fibula in either of his legs, both of which were amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old. The middle child of three from a “very sporty” family, Pistorius was encouraged to be physically active from an early age. He turned to sprinting at the age of 16 as part of his recovery from an injury sustained while playing rugby. In his first race, at a school athletics meeting just a few weeks after his initial track sessions, Pistorius beat the existing world best time by almost half a second. He currently holds the double-amputee world records in all three sprinting events. In this exclusive interview with Global he answers critics who claim that his Flex-Foot Cheetah blades give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes and he talks about his passionate involvement with two charities working with the victims of landmines.

Global: It seems that you’ve always been keen on sport – excelling at rugby, cricket and water polo at school. When did you first realise that you were talented enough to become a world-class sportsman?

Oscar Pistorius: I have played sport all my life. I come from a very sporty – and competitive – family, and my brother, sister and I were all encouraged to be active and join sports clubs. I suffered a knee injury in 2003 when I was a keen rugby player. My rehabilita­tion revolved around track running, and during this time, I met my coach Ampie Louw, who has trained three Paralympic champions and we started to see that, perhaps, athletics could be something that I could be really good at.

You were just 17 when you competed in your first Paralympic Games in Greece in 2004, winning bronze in the 100m and gold in the 200m, despite the fact that you had only taken up sprinting a year earlier. What do you remember most about these Games?

It was incredible to be selected for the Games – stepping on to the track and hearing the crowd will always be an experience that’s close to my heart.

Do you feel that your disability has shaped your character? If so, how? If not, what do you feel has given you your drive and determination?

I always say that it’s about the abilities you have, not the disability. I have always had the passion and determination to succeed. I think it probably came from my childhood. My mother would treat me and my siblings the same, and she instilled the confidence in us to go for what we believed in.

You successfully challenged the decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to ban you from competing in able-bodied athletics competitions. Why did you decide to fight the ban? Why is it so important to you to compete in able-bodied events?

As I said, I have always been encouraged to go for what I believe in, and for me that’s competing in the best competitions in the world against the best competitors in the world. I wanted to know for myself that I did not have any advantage – I believe in the fairness of sport. We had a team of the top scientists in the world undertake tests that showed I have no advantage, and this is firmly behind me now. I was extremely proud to be able to compete for South Africa in the prestigious IAAF World Championships. The IAAF is a world-class governing body for our sport and I am grate­ful to have the chance to run in their events.

At the heart of the IAAF’s decision is the thinking that your prosthetic limbs give you an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes. Do they? Professor Peter Weyland, part of the team of scientists whose evidence helped you overturn the IAAF ban, has since said that the light weight of your Cheetah blades means that your swing times are faster than athletes with intact legs and feet. What are your thoughts on this?

No, there is no advantage, as proven by the best scientists in the world. There is always going to be someone somewhere who has an opinion because they have done a science degree or similar, but I and my team know that we have undergone the right tests that have shown no advantage. This was important to me to know that I have no advantage. I compete on Össur-manufactured Flex-Foot Cheetah blades and I have no further comment on any comments that have been made by people who are looking to cause a reaction.

You’ve been using the same type of blades since 2004. Technology must have moved on since then so why do you continue to use the same blades?

The tests were conducted on the Össur Flex-Foot Cheetah and have been proven not to have an advantage. I have no plans to compete in any other leg as I would need tests to be done again. We can compete in IAAF events on the current leg and any advancement in technol­ogy has nothing to do with me. Any improvements that I have made are because of how I train. I believe I train harder than many, many other athletes, and my times are all down to me, not technology.

At the end of the 2011 season, you participated in the Athletics World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, and became the first Paralympic athlete to win an able-bodied world track medal. How did it feel to achieve this? It has been reported that you weren’t selected to run in the relay final because you had the slowest split time in the semis. What are your thoughts on not being able to compete in the final given that you were forced by the authorities to run the slowest leg of the race?

I was extremely proud to be able to compete for South Africa in the prestigious IAAF World Championships. It was the highest-profile and most prestigious able-bodied event I have ever competed in, and I faced the highest calibre of athletes from across the planet. I did not have the slowest time – I actually had the second quickest time, but I have not been given a reason why I was not selected for the relay final. Not to run in the final was a major disappointment, but you have to get up and dust yourself off and work at being the best you can possibly be.

What does your strong desire to participate in the Olympics say about the value of the Paralympics? Which of the two events is more important to you and why? If you could only compete in one, which would you choose?

I don’t view it as having to choose. I am aiming to be the best athlete I can be. A competition is a competition. As far as the Ol­ympics are concerned, it would be a great thrill to compete and I am sure that Lord Coe and his team will stage an incredible event. It can unite a nation and I am sure that the UK – and the world – will be very proud of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I have big hopes for medals at the Paralympic Games in London. I hope to compete for South Africa and defend my 100m, 200m and 400m titles, which won’t be easy. South Africa will also field a team for the 4x100m relay for the first time and we will be chal­lenging for gold. The organising committee have put great efforts into taking the Paralympic Games to new heights, and I feel that the Games could be the best ever. I am a proud Paralympian and my desire to compete in the Olympics does not take away from my passion and pride in the Paralympic movement.

Your high profile and your impressive sporting achievements have inevitably turned you into an ambassador for people with disabilities. Are you comfortable with this position? Do you consider yourself as part of the wider disability rights movement? Are you an active campaigner?

I am very passionate about the two landmine projects I am involved in – Salt of Africa and the Mineseeker project. Patrons include Sir Richard Branson, Brad Pitt and Nelson Mandela, and I am pas­sionate about helping people who have been sadly maimed through landmines. I visited several projects in Mozambique and have seen the effect the landmines have. We are working to provide mobile prosthetic laboratories that can visit areas affected by landmines and provide prosthetics. If I can be an inspiration for the young to get involved in sport then I have gone a long way to being fulfilled as a person.

Do you get tired of the constant references to your disability, or do you welcome the chance to discuss it?

It’s not something I have ever shied away from. I do not focus on my disability at all – it is a part of me, it does not define me. We need to educate people to talk about and be open about disabilities.

Interview by Elissa Jobson

About the author:

Oscar Pistorius is a triple gold medal-winning Paralympic athlete


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