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Video: Double amputee’s Olympic dream

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TODAY contributor
updated 5/20/2008 10:47:39 AM ET 2008-05-20T14:47:39

Just four days after the supreme court of sports ruled that he’s free to attempt to qualify for the Beijing Olympics against able-bodied runners, Oscar Pistorius, “the fastest man on no legs,” was back in training in South Africa Tuesday.

“It’s been crazy,” Pistorius told TODAY’s Matt Lauer after his second hard workout since arriving back home in Pretoria after his long and draining battle to be cleared to compete. “We arrived Sunday, got into training on an extreme level. Today, I’ve had my training again, and I must admit, I think my blood sugar is very low. My hands are shaking.”

He was smiling, though, reflecting the relief he felt last week in Europe when the Court of Arbitration for Sports reviewed the results of tests conducted by a team of scientists at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. They determined that the high-tech, carbon-fiber “Cheetah” Flex-Foot prosthetics Pistorius wears when he runs do not give him either a biomechanical or a metabolic advantage over able-bodied runners.

The decision reversed a ruling made six months ago by the IAAF, the international governing body for track and field, that banned Pistorius from able-bodied races — and the Olympics he dreams of competing in. The IAAF had based its findings on a German scientist’s studies that the MIT investigators declared to be fundamentally flawed.

Growing up on prosthetics
The 21-year-old Pistorius was born without fibulas, the larger of the two bones in the lower legs. At the age of 11 months, his lower legs were amputated below the knee, and Pistorius has grown up walking on prosthetic legs. He initially played rugby, but after he broke a knee four years ago, doctors advised him to take up track and field.

A gifted sprinter, Pistorius rapidly became one of the best disabled athletes in the world. At the age of 17 and with just a few months of training, he won a gold medal at 200 meters in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, also adding silvers in the 400 meters and 100 meters. Buoyed by his success, he set his sights on competing in Beijing in the 400 meters against able-bodied runners.

But he’s so fast that able-bodied runners and the IAAF wondered if his high-tech legs, which look like inverted question marks, gave him an advantage. That question led to the two scientific studies and last week’s decision, which finally put him on equal footing with mainstream athletes.

Pistorius is on the verge of world-class in speed. His best time in the 400 is 46.33, less than 0.8 seconds short of the time he needs to run to qualify for Beijing. (The world record is Michael Johnson’s 43.18, set in 1999.) After all the time he’s lost fighting for the right to compete, he admits it’s a long shot to shave nearly a second off his personal best in the little time left to qualify for Beijing. But he could be named as one of six members of South Africa’s Olympic 4x400-meter relay team. He has said his real goal is the 2012 London Games.

Still, a lot of people are expecting him to excel now that he’s won the right to compete.

Negative and positive pressure
“It’s a lot of pressure at the moment, but in the recent months it’s been a very negative pressure, and for the first time in about six months it’s a positive pressure,” Pistorius told Lauer. The process, he said, “has been very difficult. It’s been emotionally draining; very mentally draining. And it’s taken a lot of time from my training, my preparation. So it’s been pretty physically draining as well.”

Lauer asked Pistorius if he would also have questioned a runner with the sort of freaky-looking prosthetics he wears if he were an able-bodied runner.

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“Most definitely,” Pistorius said. “I think one of the reasons this court case has been very good is because there was a lot of questioning. The scientists and the kineticists and the guys we used for the tests were the top guys in the world. We conducted all the tests in the U.S., and the court for arbitration is the highest court for sports. After doing all the tests, we definitely know that the prosthetic legs don’t give me an advantage. I think that’s something that we’re very happy has come clear out of the last couple of months.”

He outlined a schedule that will have him traveling to Europe in 10 days to compete in 11 Paralympic races in 16 days before coming back to South Africa for more training. Then it will be back to Europe for three big-time races against the world’s best able-bodied runners. If he’s going to run a qualifying time for the Beijing Games, which begin on Aug. 8, it will be in those races, Pistorius said.

No matter how it turns out, the man called the “Blade Runner” has blazed a trail for disabled athletes who want to compete against the best in the world.

“At the end of the day, I’ve had wondrous support from everybody — the general public, my family, friends,” he told Lauer. “What started off for me as just a personal quest to compete in the Olympic Games has ended up being a rights call for disabled people around the world, which I’m very happy for.”

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