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August 06, 2012

Pistorius Makes Strides for Paralympic Participation

By Maron Soueid

This blog is part of the Olympics 2012 and Human Rights series.

Oscar Pistorius: 25 years old, South Africa. Events: 400m race, 4x400m relay race. Photo credit to www.oscarpistorius.com.

Many athletes encounter obstacles and failures on the road to Olympic glory. For Oscar Pistorius, no obstacle was too great.

The South African sprinter, nicknamed the “Blade Runner”, had both of his legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old due to the absence of fibula in both legs. Now, he is the first athlete with prosthetic legs to participate in the Olympics.

This is not Pistorius’ first time running in a competition with able-bodied people. He ran in the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he and his South African teammates won a silver medal for the 4x400m relay race.

Nevertheless, Pistorius’s status has sparked a debate among Olympic circles and in the sports competition world in general, about whether a person with enhanced prosthetics should be allowed to compete with other naturally endowed athletes. Although Pistorius has won several gold medals in the Paralympics, he could not give up the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games. After hearing of his eligibility to compete in the Olympic Games, Pistorius stated “today is truly one of the proudest days of my life.”

The decision to allow Pistorius to run does not come without controversy.  In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) stated that prosthetics would sully the “purity” of the sport. In 2008, it disqualified Pistorius from participating in the Olympic Games in Beijing. Others have suggested that the carbon fiber technology used in Pistorius’ running blades gives him an unfair advantage over other athletes. However, the IAAF recently overturned its decision, citing lack of evidence on whether prosthetics give a runner an advantage over others.

Some have suggested that Pistorius compete only in the Paralympic Games. American Olympic gold medal runner Michael Johnson has stated that allowing Pistorius to run in the Olympics sets a dangerous precedent, which could see more athletes with prosthetics competing in Olympic events. Although many amputee runners have competed in past events at the Paralympics, no runner has ever come close to Pistorius’ record time of 45.07 seconds in the 400 meter race.

In addition to his participation in Olympic competitions, Pistorius was also named an International Inspiration Ambassador prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games. He has focused his work with International Inspiration on promoting sports activities among children and young people, as well as helping raise awareness on social issues, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

After being knocked out in the semi-finals this weekend in the 400 meter race, fellow runner and gold medal-hopeful, Kirani James of Grenada, asked to exchange bibs in an act of solidarity and congratulations to his competitor.  Tune in to watch Pistorius in the 4 x 400 meter relay race (August 9 and 10).