28th Jul 2012 9:46am | By Pierre de Villiers
If ever there was any doubt that extraordinary South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has captured the imagination of people across the world, one need only travel to Kingsley St John’s Primary school in Cheshire.
There, pupils have been so inspired by the first double amputee to compete at the Olympic Games, they have erected an effigy of the star runner – complete with blades – outside their classrooms.
“I received a letter from the school last week who had made an Oscar ‘scarecrow’ – they sent me a picture, it was really good,” says Pistorius, who will compete for South Africa at the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes in the 400m and 4x400m.
“It’s extremely humbling to get that kind of attention and I feel so blessed to receive such positivity from people. When I found out that I would represent Team South Africa at the Olympics, I had so many positive support messages that I was just overwhelmed.”
While Pistorius has faced much scrutiny leading up to the Games, it is nothing compared to tidal wave of hype that will wash over him once he takes to the track.
Alongside Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis, the South African will be one of the stories of the London Olympics, with controversy still raging over whether the athlete’s carbon fibre blades give him an unfair advantage during a race.
The fact that he continually has to defend himself is something that clearly frustrates and annoys the 25-year-old.
“To me there is no controversy or debate,” he says. “It was proven four years ago by the best scientists in the world that there is no net advantage to me over 400m in the Ossur carbon fibre sprinting leg.”
While the din of naysayers must be difficult to block out, Pistorius is determined to only concentrate of running fast times at the Olympics.
“All of the athletes taking part in the Games are facing a time of heightened attention and I think the main thing to do is stay true to yourself and remain focused.
"I have always been a very targeted person, I don’t allow things to get to me. My main priority is to train, compete well and be the best athlete I can possible be.”
Pistorius is used to being told he can’t do things. Born with a congenital absence of fibulas, both his legs were amputated below the knees at 11 months, and doctors believed he would never walk.
Pistorius proved them wrong, enjoying an extremely active childhood, quickly becoming mobile on prosthetic legs and tearing around his Johannesburg neighbourhood.
Showing a fearless streak, he once jumped into a swimming pool with his prosthetics, causing his mother to leap in after him as he sank.
“I did a lot of things, with our without my prosthetics and have always taken a humorous approach to when things did not quite go to plan,” he recalls.
Enrolling in top school Pretoria Boys High really opened up the world of sport to Pistorius and he excelled at water polo, tennis and rugby. In June 2003 he shattered his knee during a rugby game, an injury that would dramatically change his life.
As part of his rehabilitation, Pistorius did athletics training under coach Ampie Louw and discovered he had a unique talent for sprinting.
“I was disappointed when I suffered my rugby injury, but being at Pretoria Boys High shows that when one door closes another opens,” he says.
“It is a very disciplined school with lots of opportunity and it’s as much the students that attend there as the teachers that make it so special.”
In 2004, Pistorius ran his first competitive 100m for Pretoria Boys High in 11.72 seconds. The existing Paralympic record was 12.20s.
In June that same year, he trialed Ossur’s Flex-Foot Cheetahs running blades for the first time, and in November he won Paralympic gold in the T44 200m, setting a new world record time of 21.97 seconds.
His outstanding performance was the first of many at disability sports events with the man nicknamed ‘The Blade Runner’ also breaking the world record in the 100m and picking up three gold medals (100m, 200m and 400m) at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008 – titles he is desperate to defend in London.
However, it is Pistorius’ performance in the Olympics that will generate most column inches, especially given what he had to go through to compete against able-bodied athletes.
After managing to get an IAAF ruling that banned him from competing against able-bodied runners in 2008 overturned, Pistorius has battled hard to make the qualifying time for London.
Last year, he won silver at the World Championships in Daegu as part of South Africa’s 4x400m relay team and, even though in the lead-up to the Games he failed twice to run inside the 400m ‘A’ standard qualifying time, he was still included in the SA Olympic squad.
“I have a phenomenal team behind me who have helped get me here,” he says. “I, along with them, will now put everything we can into the final few weeks of preparations before the Games where I am aiming to race well, work well through the rounds, post good times and maybe even a personal best time on the biggest stage of them all.”
Pistorius has certainly given himself the best possible chance to do just that, thanks to a torturous fitness regime and a diet that prohibits him from tucking into his favourite meal.
“If I was going to have a naughty day, I would have a big steak, jacket potato and sour cream,” he says. “But, I’m a big believer of what you put in, you get out, so I will eat a lot of proteins, nuts and seeds. It can be tough but these sacrifices are what’s needed to be the best.”
On the odd occasion Pistorius, who enjoys movies, fishing and architecture in his spare time, does venture out, his adoring fans are not too overbearing.
“I’m very lucky that my supporters are all very respectful,” he says. “I don’t really get mobbed when I’m out and about.”
Once Pistorius becomes the first man with no legs to compete at the Olympic Games, in front of an audience of billions, that is sure to change.
Oscar Pistorius’s big year doesn’t end when the Olympics do. He’ll still have the Paralympics to complete, including seeing off a challenge from rival Jerome Singleton (above) – a man who has described his rivalry with Pistorius as ‘Ali v Frazier’.
The American sprinter, 25, beat Pistorius at last year’s World Championships in New Zealand and will keep the pressure on in London.
“It is great to run against the likes of Jerome because that’s what you want in a race: good, challenging competitors, it’s what keeps you striving for perfection and gives you the hunger to win,” Pistorius says.
“There are also four or five other guys who will be challenging for the medals and the 100m will be an incredibly competitive race. It won’t be easy.”
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