LONDON – Science and humanity collided during the 400-meter run Saturday at the Olympics.
Or so I say. Others differ. They believe that Oscar Pistorius and his two artificial legs are a sporting menace, a Pandora’s box that will unleash synthetically- enhanced athletic doom. And, possibly, giant mutant grasshoppers invading our cities and towns.
All I know is, when Pistorius and his “Blade Runner” prostheses pushed off the starting line here in a morning heat race, it did not feel like a technology experiment.
It felt … strange and astonishing. It was one of the more awesome sights in Olympic history.
Pistorius was slow out of the blocks, as you’d expect from someone who has only carbon fiber below his knees, rather than muscles and bones.
But then, as Pistorius pumped his arms and absorbed the noise of 80,000 people cheering him around the track in the one-lap race, he began to take longer strides and reel in the other six runners. Pistorius passed all but one on the final turn. He even eased up a bit as he approached the finish line to clock in at 45.44 seconds.
“I didn’t want to lose contact with the leaders,” Pistorius said later, explaining his strategy. “The crowd was amazing. The experience was amazing.”
The second-place result, which would have been impressive for a man with healthy legs, advanced Pistorius into today’s semifinal round of the 400 qualifying. He will need one of the top eight times in that round to qualify for Monday’s finals.
His past performances say it will be difficult to do. Pistorius, a South African, owns a personal best that is slower than 19 of the runners he’ll face today. But he’ll have 80,000 throats pulling for him again – although all may not be as enthusiastic as one of Saturday’s spectators.
“Before the race,” Pistorius said, “I heard some guy shout at me, ‘You sexy beauty.’ ”
The remark caused Pistorius to laugh. Then, as he crossed the finish line and saw his 89-year-old grandmother holding a South African flag, it caused him to almost cry. He was easily the most enthusiastic athlete to exit the stadium tunnel and address reporters.
“It’s moments like these you have to step back and just enjoy,” Pistorius said. “It’s really difficult to separate the occasion from the race. I’m still taking it all in. I have to catch myself.”
“We work so hard,” he said.
That is not a unanimous opinion. Some people in his own sport believe that Pistorius doesn’t need to work as hard as his competition. He was born with no fibulas and had his legs amputated below the knees at five months. Aided by supportive parents, he became an active athlete and in 2004 strapped on the Flex-Foot Cheetas that he still wears to compete. They are standard issue, not customized.
Early on, Pistorius was considered an inspirational curiosity. Yet as he learned better technique and trained relentlessly and lowered his times, eyebrows were raised. Two of them belonged to the respected Michael Johnson, the retired four-time gold medal Olympic sprinter. He’s still skeptical.
“I know Oscar well, and he knows my position,” Johnson said before the Olympics. “My position is that because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics he wears, it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors.”
For a while, the IAAF track governing body agreed. In 2008, Pistorius was ruled ineligible to participate in sanctioned meets. But six months later, after intensive study that included an MIT analysis, the decision was reversed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
More intriguing, Pistorius has drawn disdain from the community of other disabled athletes. Dennis Oehler, a former Paralympics sprinting champion, registered his objections this week in a USA Today letter to the editor.
Oehler said he was “vehemently opposed” to Pistorius’ participation in London and said the South African Olympic Committee should be “ashamed of itself.” Oehler’s primary beef is that Pistorius is not competing at what would be his natural height because the prosthetic “blades” are longer than his normal lower legs.
None of this, however, seemed to bother Saturday’s other 400 runners. None spoke ill words of Pistorius.
“It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing,” James Kirani of Grenada said. “I have so much respect for him. Hats off. It adds a lot of interest to our race.”
“I give him all props,” Bryshon Nellum of the USA said. “He’s out here running like we’re all running. That’s how I look at it.”
The fear, apparently, is that with Pistorius’ success, inventors could soon develop more advanced prosethetic devices that would create half-cyborg champions. Uh, right. Because that has happened in so many other sports, hasn’t it?
At a certain point, standards may indeed be established by the IAAF to regulate artificial devices worn by runners. But here is the bottom line: Pistorius’ success is not going to change track and field forever. It will not usher in a radical change to all of sports. Common sense alone dictates why.
Think about it. The sample pool of (A) double-amputees who (B) are interested in becoming world-class track athletes and (C) have the desire and guts to train murderously and (D) become fast enough to reach the Olympics is extremely small pool.
Near as I can tell, in fact, it is a sample pool of one. The hand-wringing about Pistorius is overblown-unless you believe that it will lead to an epidemic of people cutting off both their legs so they can strap on blades and try to make an Olympic team.
Here’s what I say: Let them try.
A good parallel would be Casey Martin. He’s the pro golfer with severely diseased legs who applied and received permission to use a golf cart. Critics fretted that this would lead to a wave of other disabled golfers demanding special treatment. It hasn’t happened. Martin was also a small sample pool. These are remarkable and talented athletes. They aren’t found on every street corner.
Or on every Olympic track. It helps Pistorius’ cause that he is genial about his situation and can calmly defend his status.
“People say I don’t have a lower limb, so I have less weight,” Pistorius said at a media session last week. “Yes, but I don’t have that blood in that leg, so I have less blood. I don’t have a tendon running through that leg from ankle to knee. I think often there is a lot of debate about the advantages, but there isn’t much said about the disadvantages. If the blades give so much of an advantage, then why aren’t other athletes who have them running as fast as me?”
Right about here, we need a sensible head to sum up the situation. Kevin McMahon, a two-time Olympian hammer thrower, still follows track and field closely and is aware of the Pistorius controversy.
“He was given the green light based on comparison studies,” McMahon said in an email. “I think he should be allowed to run and I believe he brings a unique opportunity to create public awareness – and well deserved respect – for those with disabilities. I believe his courage and persistence has been, in a word, Olympic.”
In the end, Pistorius’ achievement is a great Olympic story that is likely to never be duplicated. And most likely, the saga will end today when Pistorius falls short in the semifinals. But he’ll give it his best shot.
We should just sit back and enjoy the wonder of it all.
This is no science demonstration. It is an amazing human triumph.