ROME - South African Oscar Pistorius will be the first double amputee athlete to compete at an Olympics when he takes part at the 2012 London Games, but he is already looking beyond to the Rio Games in 2016.
The 25-year-old, fondly known as the ‘Blade Runner’ because he runs with carbon fibre prosthetic running blades, was pumping iron at a gym in the northeastern Italian town Gemona on July 4 when his coach’s wife rushed in hysterics with the news he had been cleared to run the mens’ individual 400m and in the 4x400 metre relay team.
“It was just overwhelming. I think it took a couple of days for it to settle in and I do not think it will fully settle in until I am on the starting blocks in a couple of weeks,” he said in an interview on Laureus.com in Italy, where he was competing at a pre-Olympic event.
Multi Paralympic gold medalist Pistorius is part of his country’s 65-strong paralympic team and will now become the first double amputee to compete in the able-bodied competition.
The South African Sport Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) included him in the team though he failed to run a second qualifying time of 45.30 seconds outside the country.
These strict qualification criteria followed a dismal performance at the Beijing Olympics, where 265 able-bodied South African athletes brought back only one medal and sparked national embarrassment.
“Now that Sascoc has backed me and chosen me and shown that they believe in me, that has added a little bit of pressure, but I believe that the pressure I have put on myself has always been far more than any external pressure,” he said.
The Johannesburg-born runner had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old because of a congenital condition that meant he was born without fibulae -- lower leg bones.
This hardly hindered his sports activity when he grew up and performed with prostheses.
At first, Pistorius played contact sports at school, but when the sportsman fractured a knee playing rugby he took to track running, and has never looked back.
He was cleared four years ago to run against able-bodied athletes when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned a ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that his blades gave him an unfair advantage.
Pistorius hired experts to do tests that proved the blades did the same work as normal feet.
The 25-year-old went on to win a silver medal as part of the 4x400m relay team at the 2011 World Championships in South Korean city Daegu.
Ever the adrenalin junky, his love of speed is reflected in a passion for motorbikes.
Four years ago he crashed his boat in a river south of Johannesburg, breaking two ribs, an eye socket and his jaw.
And as though his legs weren’t exotic enough, he once owned two African white tigers, but sold them to a zoo in Canada when they became too big.
The Pretoria commerce student’s unusual running gear and masculine physique have garnered him global popularity and drew millions of spectators at the Beijing Paralympics.
He is perhaps a key reason for the Paralympics’ higher public profile.
His ambition to perform in able-bodied events still draws criticism from peers, like 400m Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt from the United States.
But Pistorius has consistently insisted he deserved to be treated the same as an able-bodied athlete. He’s set the semifinals as goal in London.
“Obviously, being an Olympic year, the guys are on better form. If I can make the semifinal and run close to my personal best, I will be very happy with that,” the sprinter said.
But even before these Games he is dreaming about new heigts at the next ones.
“I think 2016 in Rio de Janeiro will be where I will be at my pinnacle as a sprinter. Most sprinters peak between 27 and 29 and I will be 29 in Rio so hopefully I can work towards that and I am as keen and as excited as I have ever been.”