When I was running in international track and field events in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the big name among the world's top amputee sprinters was Marlin Shirley from the United States. Don't be alarmed if you've never heard of him -- only passionate Paralympic sport fans will know the name and the tales of greatness.
But Shirley's anonymity helps us understand the significance of Oscar Pistorius's fame.
Pistorius entered into that realm in 2004, as a 17-year-old at the Paralympic Games in Athens. His gangly style and two artificial legs compared to Shirley's single prosthetic leg made immediate waves. The South African landed a bronze medal behind Shirley in the 100 metres and a gold medal ahead of Shirley in the 200.
Soon, Pistorius's career -- like the runner himself once he overcame the inertia of the starting blocks -- took flight. He went on to sweep the 100m, 200m, and 400m gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.
By that time, he was starting to make noise on the able-bodied athletics scene, stirring up questions about the fairness of a runner with two prosthetic legs. It was argued that his spring-like carbon fibre feet (which all amputee sprinters wear) seemed to give him unusual energy return in the latter stages of races against able-bodied runners.
Originally, he was denied the opportunity to race in International Amateur Athletics Federation sanctioned events, but that ruling was overturned when tests revealed that Pistorius's slow acceleration out of the blocks kept him from having an overall net advantage over able-bodied sprinters.
My first interview with Pistorius was at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, England in 2005. He was a shy 18-year-old kid who won both the 100m and 200m -- both events on the program for the T44 category (meaning below-the-knee amputees).
I met him again the next year at that same competition and wound up sharing a cab ride with the young man and his coach, Ampie Louw. Although I had no idea of the fame he would one day achieve, it was obvious that he was a motivated and talented athlete who had arrived just in time to take advantage of the most advanced period of prosthetic technology in history.
I was struck then, and many times since, with his humility and sincerity. A rare twist on that came last summer in London at the Paralympics when he was beaten at the tape by Brazil's Alan Oliviera. Pistorius mocked his rival on the track, on the podium and in the press. But the next day he seemed struck by the audacity of his own actions and apologized to Oliviera through the world media.
Canada's great wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc is arguably the most famous Paralympian not named Pistorius in the world. Her back-to-back sweeps of every event from 100m to 1500m at the Athens and Beijing Games put her in a legendary orbit. But Pistorius's fame exceeded Petitclerc's by several levels.
His success on the track as a "disabled" athlete beating able-bodied elites put him in a spotlight never before seen among his Paralympic peers. His poise and media savvy off the track combined with the "against all odds" nature of his story made him irresistible for sports and non-sports media.
The fact that he made over a million dollars per year on various endorsements (according to a New York Times article) ranging from American shoe giant Nike to French perfume maker Thierry Mugler put him in uncharted waters for a Paralympian. His presence on American network television programs such as the Late Show with David Letterman
cemented his status as an athlete who could not only transcend his sport but could invigorate people with disabilities worldwide.
All of these factors made Oscar Pistorius a man who was admired across the globe. And they make his being charged with murder
this week for the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp utterly unfathomable.
Two lives are ruined, two families are gutted, and the world of Paralympic sport got a blow that it never expected.
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