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Johannesburg - Oscar Pistorius’s rise to become perhaps the most globally recognised South African after Nelson Mandela was a result of a quirk of nature and a sporting injury. Pistorius was an international athlete 16 years in the making.
The moment his parents decided to amputate their son’s legs at the age of 11 months after discovering he had been born without the lower bones in his legs was the first brave act that allowed him to live as normal a life as an amputee.
The second was a rugby injury suffered at the age of 16 while at Pretoria Boys’ High. Pistorius grew up as normal as any able-bodied boy.
“At around three, I began to understand that my feet were different. I had no interest in whether they were better or worst than other feet,” he reveals in his autobiography, Blade Runner.
“Every morning, while Carl (his brother) put on his shoes, I would slip on my prostheses; it was all the same to me. I had two pairs of shoes: my Mickey Mouse pair was for everyday use and another smarter version for my Sunday best and parties. If for some reason I missed church on Sunday, I could wear the same pair of shoes for two weeks solid… The thought that I could wear the same shoes for a hundred days and they would still smell new tickles me silly even now. I consider it one of the advantages of not having any feet.”
The other advantage was that he didn’t feel pain from just below the knee down. He and Carl would fly down a hill in their go-kart when Oscar was four and then use his prosthesis as a brake. He broke pair after pair of new legs.
For the Pistorius family, physical training began at a young age. They were given extra pocket money if they did more skipping, push-ups or sit-ups. He took to cricket as a youngster and was a good all-rounder. He did not have to wear pads when batting and was rarely given out leg before.
He also took to wrestling when he was six, where he won his first medal. It set in motion a love of winning. “It is addictive,” he wrote, “almost like a drug – but a positive drug.”
Pistorius hated running when he was younger. It was at Pretoria Boys High where his sporting talent began to flourish. He gave up cricket and took up rugby and water polo. He also began running long distances, 10km on new lightweight legs designed by a friend of his father.
The rugby injury that would change his life happened on June 21, 2003. Pistorius was 16. He hadn’t seen the tackle coming, and was smashed by two “enormous guys” from either side. “I remember a sharp pain and when I looked at my leg after I’d hit the ground, it was at a weird angle. My knee was stuffed, and I had to go to rehab for it. That’s where I found out that I wasn’t too bad at this sprinting thing.”
He was taken to see Gerry Versfeld, the surgeon who had performed the amputation when he was a baby. He was introduced to Ampie Louw, an athletics coach at the University of Pretoria and on January 1, 2004, his athletics career began. He ran the 100m in 11.72 seconds in his first race. Louw convinced Pistorius to enter the South African championships. Within eight months of starting athletics, he had qualified for the 2004 Paralympic Games. In Athens, Pistorius was the only double amputee in the 100m and 200m finals against Brian Frasure, the American who, ironically, had aligned Pistorius’s Cheetah blades, and Marlon Shirley. He came third in the 100m, but dominated the 200m final, winning in a record time.
By the time Pistorius reached Beijing, he was the face of the Paralympics. At the London Games, his fame and fortune was on a par with the best able-bodied athletes.