It sounds like a Paralympic version of a barroom joke: guy with no lower arms or legs walks up to a guy born with no fibula in either leg and starts talking about running.
No joke. The guy born without the fibulas is South African 400-meter runner Oscar Pistorius, the first double amputee to have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the able-bodied World Championships or Olympics. And that scene happened at Icahn Stadium in New York City on Thursday, as the 24-year-old Pistorius loosened up two days before his second race in America against able-bodied athletes.
The man with no lower arms or legs was 23-year-old Andre Lampkin. Three years ago, Lampkin was a scholarship wide receiver at Cisco (Texas) Junior College, where he contracted bacterial meningitis, and had to have part of all four limbs amputated. As Pistorius changed from his walking legs, which look like normal legs and have a rubbery outer texture, into his running or "Cheetah legs," the crescent carbon fiber blades on which he races, he patiently took questions from Lampkin, who got his Cheetah legs in February and now aspires to a Paralympic career.
"Getting out of the blocks, you have to really lift your knees up," Pistorius told Lampkin. "If you don't, you'll drag your legs along the ground." When Pistorius ran his first 100-meter race in 2004, he had to start standing up. And because he has no ankle flexion and no toes, maintaining his balance while accelerating at the gun has been a huge challenge. In the 2004 Paralympic Games, he essentially fell out of the blocks in the 200 meters, before coming back to win. In every race he has run against able-bodied athletes, Pistorius has been the slowest out of the blocks -- and he always will be.
On Saturday in the Adidas Grand Prix in New York, against the toughest 400-meter field assembled this year, Pistorius had more than just the start to worry about. As the slowest seed in the field, he drew lane 1, a dreaded spot for most sprinters who disdain the tight curves. And the unsteady wind and constant rain seemed omens of ill portent for Pistorius.
In the past, Pistorius has struggled mightily in rainy and windy conditions. In 2007, in a race in Sheffield, England, the rain gave Pistorius such trouble balancing that he ended up running outside of his lane and was disqualified. So this year, Pistorius' coach, Ampie Louw, made sure to rouse his charge to practice every time he felt a drizzle. "My proprioception [his ability to orient his body] wasn't always great in the rain," Pistorius said Thursday, "but now I don't mind the rain, as long as there's no wind." It seemed like a moot point during Oscar's Thursday training-session when he made the comment, standing in 92-degree heat without a hint of a breeze. But come gray Saturday, it was 60 degrees and the rain drops were swirled by intermittent 10-15 mph winds. Not exactly ideal conditions for the only runner in the race with no toes to fine-tune the purchase his feet find with every stride. Nonetheless, Pistorius ran what might have been the best race of his career.
Off to his customary slow start, Pistorius was seventh of eight runners for most of the race, until he roared down the home stretch to place fifth in 45.69. It was Pistorius's second fastest time ever -- he ran 45.61 earlier this year -- and 0.44 away from the automatic "A standard" that would qualify him for the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea in August.
In a 400-meter race, 0.44 seconds is a huge gap. But, judging from the rest of the field, Pistorius is closing in on the ability level it will take to make the standard. The entire field ran a bit slow on Saturday in the difficult conditions. After the race, Jeremy Wariner, the winner and 2004 Olympic gold medalist, estimated the soggy track and a wind that picked up while the athletes were on the back straight added about a half second to the finishing times. That's probably a bit of an exaggeration, but Pistorius bested several athletes who have run well under 45 seconds within the past few seasons, making this his best competitive effort against able-bodied athletes. And, if Wariner is right and Pistorius is ready to run a half-second faster in good conditions, then he will be off to the World Championships.
After the race, Pistorius said he spotted both his coach and manager "smiling from ear-to-ear, so that's a good indication of how they feel about the race." With at least five races left in his season, the answer to the Pistorius question is looking slightly more like a "when" and not an "if" he will eventually qualify for an able-bodied World Championships or Olympics.
With his qualification, questions about whether Pistorius' blades put him at an unfair advantage will inevitably resurface. Pistorius, who has never lost a 200- or 400-meter race against other amputee athletes, was banned in 2007 by the IAAF from competing against able-bodied athletes after a scientist the IAAF commissioned said the blades returned energy more efficiently than human legs. But the ban was ultimately overturned in 2008 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport when a group of seven scientists working with Pistorius marshaled evidence rejecting the energy-return hypothesis. Since then, Pistorius has been allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes and to aim for the Olympics. But the scientific controversy has not entirely abated.
Eighteen months after he was cleared to compete, two of the seven scientists who helped get Pistorius reinstated split from the rest of the group and published data that convinced them that the lightness of the blades allows Pistorius to move his lower legs through the swing phase of his stride so quickly that he does not need to generate near the power of an able-bodied world-class sprinter. That study also found Pistorius' mechanics are different enough from an able-bodied sprinter that it's difficult or impossible to compare him exactly to Olympians. The analysis of his mechanics found when Pistorius runs, he holds his femur straight and uses it as a strut to compress the blades. Ultimately, he spends less time in the air and more on the ground with each stride than do his able-bodied competitors, and his body lifts off the ground less between each stride.
Whatever the case, Pistorius is doing something nobody ever has. No amputee has ever held his own against the best able-bodied sprinters in the world, and no amputee has ever run as fast as Pistorius, who has been training for life on prosthetic limbs since before his first birthday. Plus, unlike Pistorius who is better at 200 meters than 100, and best of all at 400, most double amputees are the reverse. Now that he can run solidly in the mid-45 second range for 400 meters, Pistorius can realistically talk about becoming something one would think must be about the last job on the list when parents tell a double amputee child that he can be whatever he wants when he grows up: an Olympic sprinter.