It must have been one of the most extraordinary sprinting performances ever witnessed. It was a 200 metres heat at the Athens Paralympics four years ago, and 17-year-old Oscar Pistorius was getting jumpy. There had been four false starts, and as the gun went for the fifth time the young South African froze.
In the footage, as the others fly past him, he looks around him with the befuddled air of someone woken on a train at the end of the line. He finally rises and gets under way. At 100m, he's nowhere. At 150m, he's still nowhere. Then one freakish burst of speed later and he's crossing the line – with everyone else nowhere.
Since then he's become a serial medal-winner, and Extraordinary People: The Fastest Man On No Legs (Five, Wednesday) filmed him last year as he tried to convince the International Olympic Committee to let him take on the able-bodied boys in Beijing this summer. It wasn't exactly a cliffhanger – if you'd kept up with the case you'd know that in January the IOC ruled the blades do too much of the work. But it was a nicely worked portrait of a man with the world at his prosthetic feet.
He was born missing his fibulas and the outside of his feet. "To cut his feet off and throw them in the dustbin was not a nice feeling," his father says. He began running at school when he was recovering from a rugby injury – his legs only came off once or twice – and eight months later he was in Athens.
Since then he's become easily the biggest name in Paralympic sport, but that meant nothing to the IOC, which was deeply suspicious of the blade runner, and anecdotal evidence from the programme was against him.
"He's freaking fast," says Bradley Bonner, one of his able-bodied training partners (so: "freaking" isn't just used on American cop shows...) "It's crazy – he just gets quicker and quicker throughout the race. It's quite scary – he pulls out slowly, and then you hear the blades coming from behind. And then the noise fades because he's 20 yards ahead of you."
Which is exactly what the IOC found over two days of tests in Germany. Having filmed him racing, they'd noticed that whereas able-bodied 400m runners inevitably slow down in the second half, Pistorius actually speeds up, thanks to the blades.
His first steps look awkward, slightly lumbering, even. Then as he accelerates his limbs become ferociously coordinated. As he approaches the line he's kicking up such a pace you can almost see smoke rising from the track. The blades are designed for running, so when he walks away he looks like a crane or flamingo strutting away from the water hole.
But this exotic creature found no joy from the high-ups and, barring a positive pronouncement from the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne, the fastest man on no legs will be in Beijing only for the Paralympics. Still, as he says, "You're dealt a situation in life, and if you make the best of it, good for you. If you let it bring you down, that's your problem." Whatever happens in Lausanne, you get the feeling Pistorius will make the best of it.Reuse content