Oscar Pistorius: 'They hid my legs and set my bed on fire. It was a great joke'
The world's most famous Paralympian just wants to be treated the same as everyone else. He tells Brian Viner why
Thursday 15 September 2011
Before meeting Oscar Pistorius, probably the world's most famous double-amputee and certainly its most newsworthy, I took a phone call from one of the PR team handling his media commitments. Could I please avoid too many questions about Oscar's prosthetic legs, the so-called Blade Runner's so-called blades, as it might get Oscar's dander up.
This seemed like being asked, prior to an interview with Sebastian Vettel, to please steer clear of motorsport. Yet the very next day, Pistorius took offence at the BBC's Rob Bonnet asking him on the Today programme whether he thought he might be an "inconvenient embarrassment" to the South African authorities and the International Association of Athletics Federations, on account of the fact that he was leading them into "uncharted ethical waters". It was reported that he stormed out of the interview. He did not. But he did abruptly terminate it, declaring that he had been insulted.
All of which leaves me feeling a little apprehensive as I wait to have lunch with Pistorius at his hotel near the Tower of London. He sounds decidedly touchy. How can I raise the many contentious issues surrounding the great Paralympian's participation in able-bodied events, most recently and momentously the World Championships in South Korea, without upsetting him?
As it turns out, he's not touchy at all. Rather, he is a thoughtful, intelligent young man, courteous to a fault. He orders lemon sole, but fully 10 minutes later the waiter returns to say that lemon sole is off. So he asks for chicken, simply grilled, nothing unhealthy. It arrives with lots of bits of frazzled bacon, which he carefully, uncomplainingly, picks off. Meanwhile, he converses cheerfully, with nothing deemed off-limits. He was born with congenital absence of fibulae, and both legs were amputated between the knee and the ankle when he was 11 months old. Has he ever wished that it had not happened, that he had been born, like his older brother and younger sister, with all limbs in full working order?
"It was never an issue," he says. "It was never made an issue. My mother would say to my brother, 'you put on your shoes, and Oscar, you put on your legs, then meet me at the car'. Nobody ever pitied me to the point that I questioned why. I won my first sporting trophy when I was six, for Greco-Roman wrestling. At nine I took up boxing. At school I played tennis, rugby and cricket. I played water polo to provincial standard. People's perception of me as a disabled kid changed when they saw the way I perceived myself. I have always focused on my abilities, not my disabilities."
Nonetheless, on his first night of boarding at Pretoria Boys High – also the alma mater of his friend John Smit, the Springboks captain – 13-year-old Oscar Pistorius called together the other 23 boys in his dorm. "I said 'hi I'm Oscar'. They thought I was trying to take charge, or suck up, but I'd been in long pants all day and they didn't know. I said 'I don't want you guys to get a fright when we get changed, but I don't have legs. I don't want special treatment. I deal with my disability with humour and I'd appreciate it if you could do the same'."
He laughs. "It was the worst thing I could have said to those guys. They took the humour to a new level. One night they hid my legs, then poured lighter fluid on my bed frame and lit it. They woke me up and told me the building was burning down, then they all ran out of the door. I couldn't find my prosthetic legs. I thought I was going to die. Then the guys came back in laughing. It was a great practical joke."
All this perhaps helps to explain why Pistorius took on the IAAF with such resolve when in early 2008 they ruled that the prosthetic limbs gave him an unfair advantage and would make him ineligible in able-bodied competitions. What he wanted was what he had fought for all his life, to be treated like everyone else. He engaged lawyers to contest the IAAF decision, and in May 2008 it was duly overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in light of detailed scientific evidence that the blades conferred no advantage. That summer he was a triple gold medallist in the Beijing Paralympics. He had narrowly failed to make South Africa's Olympic squad, but competing in both Olympics and Paralympics at London 2012 became his target.
It looks distinctly likely that he will. Simply by qualifying for this year's World Championships in Daegu, Pistorius earned an indelible entry in the annals of sport. Then he made history again by reaching the 400m semi-finals and again, by winning a silver medal in the 4x400 relay. Yet the athletics establishment, it seems, is still bent on putting obstacles in his way.
He had to sit out the relay final due to an understanding in the camp that the slowest runner in the heats – in which, incidentally, the team established a new South African record – would make way in the final for the hurdler, LJ van Zyl. Pistorius had already been made to run the first leg, traditionally the slowest, following the "suggestion" earlier that week from the IAAF that in subsequent legs, with the runners no longer confined to separate lanes, he might become a danger to the others. His protests that he had run many times in other races, without incident, fell on deaf ears. Then the team manager Magda Botha told him that in the heats he had run his split in 46.3 seconds, slower than the rest, and that he would be the one to miss the final. Yet he claims to have found out later that his time was 45.2, and therefore not the slowest. Didn't he raise merry hell about this? "I don't want to get into a squabble with my federation," he says, equably.
Whatever, it seemed as if Bonnet might have had a point, that the IAAF, and maybe also his own federation, is still discomfited by the reality of a man racing on carbon-fibre legs. Pistorius, though, thinks not. While conceding that his experiences in Daegu were "bittersweet", his relationship with the IAAF, he insists, is perfectly amicable and often misconceived.
As for the wider world, there is still a prevalent feeling that it's not quite right, a guy with prosthetic legs in an otherwise able-bodied race. "About every couple of months," he says, "someone comes up and says 'but don't you think they give you an advantage?' I'm like, 'are you mad?' If I thought I had an advantage I would not be in the sport. The testing was also to give myself peace of mind."
His right to participate is backed with arguments that are well-worn, but never less than convincing. Thousands of runners use the same prosthetic legs, without getting anywhere near his times. And he's been using the same blades since 2004 yet his times have steadily improved, unequivocal proof that it is relentless training and improving technique that have yielded progress, not fiendish advances in carbon-fibre technology.
He has only one pair of running legs (though others for walking, and even a new set for playing golf). But it is the running blades that are his professional tools no less than a top violinist's Stradivarius, and he treats them accordingly, always taking them on planes as hand-luggage. Yet prosthetic limbs and airports don't really mix in this post 9/11 age. In Amsterdam he was arrested after gunpowder residue was found on his walking prosthetics. "I'd been to a shooting-range a couple of days earlier," he explains. It took a while to convince Dutch police that he wasn't a suicide bomber.
I ask him whether he thinks his lack of lower limbs has forged his character. "I don't know," he replies. "I'm very close to my brother, who's an extreme sports junkie, very active like me, very driven. Our parents always said that if we started something we had to commit to it 100 per cent. So if I do a gym session, throwing up afterwards, struggling to get the key in the ignition, that's what I enjoy."
He was brought up mainly by his mother after his parents' divorce, but she died when he was 15. "I wish she was here to see what I'm doing," he says, matter-of-factly. "She was quite a woman. Very carefree. She would sometimes take us away camping for two days during the school week. Very spontaneous. And before she passed away she asked us to celebrate her life, not mourn her death, which is what we did and still do."
Heaven knows, the teen years can be tricky enough without prosthetic legs, and the death of a mother, and schoolmates who set your bed frame on fire, and his emergence through them to become a genuinely world-class athlete is so inspiring that Tom Hanks is said to be itching to make the film. The idea causes Pistorius some unease, however, not least because his story isn't finished yet.
As for who his own inspirations have been, he slightly surprisingly cites Mike Tyson. "And later," he adds, perhaps seeing my eyebrows shoot heavenwards, "Frankie Fredericks and Colin Jackson. Those are guys you can speak to and if you don't know who they are, why they're famous, they won't tell you. I think sport teaches you a lot [about humility], especially coming from a country with so much ethnic and socio-economic variation. Sport is probably the only thing in the world that transcends all those boundaries. You can grow up with all the money in the world or be very poor, but be good or bad at sport."
It is true enough. And it is surely true, as well, that Pistorius himself has greatly enhanced the world of sport, not diminished or complicated it. When I ask whether he has met Nelson Mandela, he tells me about their 10-minute encounter when he got back to South Africa, triumphant, from the Paralympics three years ago. "I thought it would be awesome but it was even better than that. There is this aura around him that's really peaceful, and when you meet someone who can go through all that and still be so forgiving, it blows your mind."
As I leave the hotel dining-room, I reflect that there is something rather mind-blowing, too, about 24-year-old Oscar Pistorius.
Oscar Pistorius is a BT Ambassador. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Visit www.bt.com/london2012
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