Friday, August 26, 2011

Blade runner Oscar Pistorius told: If he competes in 4x400 relay, he can only run first leg “to avoid danger to other athletes”

From The NY Times:

DAEGU, South Korea — After years of fighting the system and then struggling against his own limitations, Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter, double amputee and champion Paralympian who runs on carbon fiber blades, has finally succeeded in earning a place at a major able-bodied championship event.

But soon after he arrived here for the world track and field championships, the sport’s governing body announced a new restriction: if he competes in the 4x400 relay, he must run the first leg “to avoid danger to other athletes.”

When Pistorius first emerged at world-class level, the governing body conducted studies to determine whether his blades gave him an advantage over other runners. It decided to bar him from able-bodied competition in early 2008, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that decision, ruling that the international association had not proved the point. Eligible for the Olympics, his long-term goal, Pistorius failed to meet the qualifying standard for the 2008 Games in Beijing or — after a motorboat accident — for the 2009 world championships in Berlin.

But Pistorius, whose limbs were amputated when he was an infant because of a congenital problem, has improved his times, and he said he remained convinced that his blades did not give him a net advantage.

Lamine Diack, the president of track and field’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, said Friday that his organization considered Pistorius a “unique case.”

He said that the I.A.A.F. had asked South African track officials to have him run the first leg of the 4x400 relay if he does take part, presumably because of safety concerns on a crowded relay track where another runner might get hit by Pistorius’s blades. Runners remain in their lanes during the first leg of the relay before settling into a pack.

In an interview with L’Equipe, the French newspaper, this week, Pistorius said he expected to run the third leg in Daegu if he took part. But on Friday he said that he would run whatever leg officials told him to run while playing down any potential danger to other athletes.

“I’ve run in many relays in different legs and never had a problem or an incident,” he said.

Even without a realistic chance for a medal, these world athletics championships are all about opportunity for Pistorius.

At 24, he achieved a dramatic and unexpected breakthrough, dropping more than a half-second off his previous personal best in the 400 meters at a meet in Lignano, Italy, last month. His time, 45.07 seconds, put him under the world championship qualifying time of 45.25.

“I thought it was a phenomenal race,” he said. “When I crossed the line I knew it was going to be pretty good, but when I looked at the time I think I even surprised myself. I was just overjoyed.”

The wider world is clearly curious about what could happen next. His appearance in a crowded news conference room Friday, the eve of the championships, was a packed-to-the-rafters affair, surpassed in buzz here only by Usain Bolt’s appearance with Team Jamaica on Thursday.

“Truly a groundbreaking moment in athletics,” said Michael Johnson, the retired 400-meter world-record holder and eight-time world champion who shares a sponsor with Pistorius and served as baritone-voiced master of ceremonies by posing some opening questions to him.

But Pistorius, hair cropped short and blue jeans covering his prosthetic limbs, was quick to put expectations in perspective in a grueling event in which sub-45-second performances are the coin of the realm for serious contenders like the defending world champion, LaShawn Merritt of the United States, and the fast-rising teenager Kirani James of Grenada.

“If I can run consistently mid to low 45 seconds, I’ll be very, very happy,” Pistorius said.

His longtime coach, Ampie Louw, said he would be “over the moon” if Pistorius managed to advance out of the first round Sunday and reach the semifinals.

But though Pistorius and Louw were resolutely upbeat, Pistorius, nicknamed Blade Runner, continues to generate conflicting emotions in the milieu that he has long sought to integrate.

“I think I have kind of mixed feelings about it,” said Angelo Taylor, the veteran American 400 and 400-meter hurdle runner. “It definitely is an inspiration for a lot of people, but at the same time, he doesn’t have to deal with certain things like we have to, like the injury part. You have a calf injury. You have plantar fasciitis or any foot injury that would probably disable you from competing, he doesn’t have to worry about that. I think that’s the disadvantage part of it, but, you know, I applaud him. Just to come out here and try to compete with the guys with legs, that’s a big step for him.”

Asked if the continued speculation tainted the moment for him in some fashion, Pistorius paused before answering.

“You could see it that way, but I think if you look at how much positivity has come out of it and the negativity is 5 percent, 10 percent,” he said. “I think I might get a little too emotional at times and let that 10 percent overcast the 90 percent of positive stuff that is getting covered. You know, I think I’ve become more calm the last couple of years when it comes to this topic. I’m more at ease. I’ve done a lot of tests when it comes to prosthetic legs. I know that if they were providing such an advantage as some of the claims that have been made, there would be many other Paralympic athletes running and qualifying.”

He said his significant improvement this year — dropping nearly a second off his previous best time — was the result of being mentally fresh and reshaping his body: losing some upper-body muscle while strengthening his shoulders and dropping some weight.

The changes have not been without challenges. According to Louw, the lost weight has made it harder for Pistorius to find a tight fit in the sockets that attach his legs to his blades.

“It’s creating a big problem for us, losing some energy from the bone to the socket,” Louw said.

Marla Runyan, a legally blind American, became the first Paralympian to run in the Olympics in 2000 when she finished eighth in the 1,500. In Beijing, another Paralympian, Pistorius’s South African compatriot Natalie du Toit, who is a single amputee, competed in open-water swimming.

For now, Pistorius, who will have to meet the qualifying standard again to compete in next year’s Olympics in London, is the first amputee to run in the world championships, and he is well aware of the powerful message that sends and of the powerful television images it will generate.

“I have grown up on prosthetic limbs, and I am an advocate for people with disabilities,” he said. “I think we live in a world where more and more people are becoming amputees through diabetes or motor vehicle accidents, and disability is not something we need to be shy about talking about or think it’s taboo.”