The 'Oscar effect' that transformed a movement

Paralympic standards have never been higher – and that is partly due to Pistorius

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The Independent Online

When Oscar Pistorius first lined up in the 100m at the Paralympic Games he barely knew the names of the competitors either side of him in Athens' Olympic Stadium. And in turn they would have had little clue about the young man from Pretoria, let alone that he was still two months shy of his 18th birthday.

Eight years on, Pistorius is one of sport's most recognisable figures, transcending his sport, athletics, like few others and the Paralympics like no other. It is not only he whose fame has grown, the Games in which he will compete for the third time have developed too and so have the athletes that will compete against him.

"I ran in Athens but up to the beginning of that year I didn't know much about the Paralympics," said Pistorius. "I didn't know the guys' names who lined up beside me for my first race. I think the biggest turn-out was 20,000 on one Saturday, on the rest of the days it was between seven and 12,000.

"Four years later in Beijing you had full houses most days but the perception was still lacking I believe in not only disabled sports but in people living with disabilities. In the last two or three years there has been such a shift really with the excitement building up to these Games.

"Athens was such an amazing experience. I wish I had got involved in Paralympic sport earlier. It has been the most amazing last eight years. With this being my third Paralympic Games I'm a little envious of all the youngsters who are going to be able to step out on the track for the first time and experience this because the Paralympic movement has grown so, so much over the last eight years. It's been great to see the transformation of the sport.

"You definitely see the standard has picked up tremendously, eight years ago the time difference between the guy who won and the guy who came last in the 100m final was just over two seconds. Now it is just over half a second and that is a testament to how many more Paralympic athletes there are, people with disabilities not letting their disabilities get the better of them, just picking up and saying 'look this is the situation I am in, I shouldn't treat myself any differently because I don't want anyone else to treat me differently, let's get on and focus on my abilities rather than my disabilities'. That makes me very proud to be part of the Paralympic movement."

Pistorius will return to the Olympic Stadium to race in four events, the 100m, 200m, 400m and the 100m relay, and does not regard himself as favourite to win all four. Now he is all too well aware of the runners who are likely – given a successful qualification – to line up either side of him.

"The 100m is going to be the biggest challenge for me," he said and then runs through a list of names, Jonnie Peacock, Jerome Singleton, Blake Leeper, Arnu Fourie, Alan Oliveira, a Briton, two Americans, a South African (and his room-mate) and a Brazilian which makes this the most eagerly awaited race of the Games.

"It is going to be a strong event, closely contested and that is what makes it such a great spectator event. If I can get in the top three I will be very happy. I have moved away from the 100, I ran my first 100m in 16 months last weekend. The top guys are running quicker than I am and it is their focus. I have to be realistic and say the 200 and the 400 are the events I am better suited for."

It is five years since he recorded his best time of 10.91sec in the 100m as his abilities have proved better suited to longer sprints. Pistorius ran the 400m in the Olympics, making the semi-final, and the 400m relay, in which South Africa reached the final.

"That was such a blessing," he said of his Olympic experience. "It was a competition I had been trying to qualify for for five years. Being able to run against the world's best out here really inspired me. What is nice is that I have got used to the track and the intensity. The Paralympics have been sold out for many weeks and there will be the same passionate crowd there so hopefully I can use that experience to my advantage for the first race or two."

His first race is on Saturday, his first final, the 200m, on Sunday. That should produce a gold medal. There should also be one in the 400m, with the 100m and relay less easy to forecast. Whatever is to happen the 25-year-old already has more than made a name for himself, and helped create an environment in which his competitors' names are better known too.

Who will light up the Games? 10 Paralympic stars to watch

Natalie du Toit; South Africa

Du Toit, now 28, has already swum in the Olympics and Paralympics – winning five Paralympic golds in Beijing and coming 16th in the 10km open water swim in the Olympics. In 2002 at the Manchester Commonwealth Games Du Toit, who had her left leg amputated below the knee after a scooter accident just a year earlier, competed in the 800m freestyle as well as the disabled events.

Jason Smyth; Ireland

Born in Derry, Smyth competes for Ireland and is aiming to match Usain Bolt's double double in the sprints. Smyth runs the T13 class for visually impaired athletes and won the 100m and 200m in Beijing. Trains with Tyson Gay in Florida and has run 10.22sec in the 100m – a time that left him 0.04 short of qualifying for the Olympics.

Pal Szekeres; Hungary

The 47-year-old fencer from Budapest is the only person to have won Olympic and Paralympic medals. In 1988 he won a bronze in the Seoul Olympics – three years later a road accident left him in a wheelchair, a year after that he won Paralympic gold in Barcelona. Two more followed in 1996 and he has won successive bronzes at the three Games since – in between Games he served as a government minister.

Yevheniy Bohodayko; Ukraine

Ukraine are expected to be one of the leading nations in the pool and the 18-year-old is one of the major reasons why. Last year in Berlin, Bohodayko dominated the European championships, collecting 10 medals (eight gold, two silver), a world record and two European records. In London he is scheduled to compete in nine events, beginning tomorrow on day one in the 100m backstroke S6.

Jiri Jezek; Czech Republic

It is 14 years since Jezek competed in his first world championships, 12 since his first Paralympics. In that time the cyclist from Prague has won six world titles and nine Paralympic medals, five of them gold. He won his first two in Sydney, one in Athens and two more in Beijing – where he took home four medals in all. Jezek, who lost a leg in a car accident aged 11, will compete in five events in London.

Esther Vergeer; Netherlands

There is no more impressive record in sport. The 31-year-old wheelchair tennis player has won her last 457 matches, accumulating three straight Paralympic gold medals en route. She is a huge favourite to make it four in London, where she will also be seeking a third doubles gold. Vergeer is also an accomplished basketball player, having been part of the Dutch team that won the 1997 European title.

Kelly Cartwright; Australia

Cartwright was 15 when she had her right leg amputated after being diagnosed with cancer. Four years later she ran in Beijing in the T42 class, coming sixth in the 100m but since then has made dramatic improvements and will go for three golds in London. Cartwright, from Victoria, is now the 100m world champion, the world record holder in the 200m and favourite in the long jump.

Natalia Partyka; Poland

The 23-year-old from Gdansk will complete a double double of her own. Four years ago Partyka, who was born without a right hand or forearm, competed in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. Two weeks ago she reached the last 32 of the table tennis singles – in the Paralympics she expects to go all the way again as she defends her 2008 gold

Kurt Fearnley; Australia

The 31-year-old from New South Wales will be competing in his fourth Games – he won silver on home turf in Sydney – and is the defending champion in the wheelchair marathon, having won the event in Beijing and Athens. His final-day tussle with Britain's David Weir and Marcel Hug – Huggy Bear as Fearnley calls the Swiss – will be one of the events of the Games.

Antonio Tenorio; Brazil

The 41-year-old has won four straight Paralympic judo golds since making his debut in Atlanta – the only person to manage such a feat. He has already said he will compete on home soil in Rio in four years. Tenorio has been blind since the age of 19, having lost the sight in one eye following a slingshot accident and then in the other through an infection.