Oscar Pistorius calls to his live-in caretaker from Malawi. “Frankie, Frankie. Please can you bring me my legs, brother?”
The request is spoken in a soft South African accent at Pistorius’s bachelor pad on a guarded estate outside Pretoria. He – not Frankie – has just prepared us a lunch of chicken salad, avocado and nuts. Now he is in the process of taking off the Cheetah blades he runs in to slip back into the prosthetic limbs he uses in everyday life.
The blades, briefly worn indoors for our photographer’s benefit, are placed into a tennis bag and taken to the boot of the car. They are ready for the next day’s training. Just as they will be in South Korea later this month when Pistorius becomes the first amputee to compete at an athletics world championships.
For the moment he is at home, a few miles from his birthplace in Johannesburg and closer still to the Pretoria Boys High School where he was a sports-mad boarder.
Books and memorabilia of heroes from Nelson Mandela to Iron Mike Tyson, from Sir Bobby Charlton to Valentino Rossi, fill the shelves and walls. His sporting trophies, including the first award he won as a 12-year-old wrestler and that famous TV camera that marks him out as a recipient of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Helen Rollason Award for remarkable courage in the face of adversity, take up the space next to the whisky cabinet and pictures of his racehorses.
This being South Africa, one baseball bat and one cricket bat lie behind Pistorius’s bedroom door. A revolver is at his bedside. A machine gun by his window.
But it is a small gong of gold in the kitchen that catches the eye. A pig-fat mallet is next to it. “It was my mum’s,” says Pistorius with a smile. “We would run when she hit that.”
His beloved mother Sheila died when he was 15. She was 42. The date she was born and the date she died – after an allergic reaction to medication having been wrongly diagnosed with hepatitis – are tattooed on the inside of his arm. He says a silent prayer to her before every race. It was she and her husband Henk, who runs a sulphate mine, who took the decision that little Oscar, born without a fibula in either leg, should undergo a double amputation. He was 11 months old.
Sheila, a devout Christian, wrote a letter to her son before the operation with a message he could digest when he was older. “The real loser is never the person who crosses the finishing line last,” she said. “The real loser is the person who sits on the side. The person who does not even try to compete.”
Those words, as poignant as they are prescient, bring us to our meeting. Over a pre-lunch pot of coffee in a restaurant at Pretoria University’s high performance centre, the 24-year-old Pistorius explains why as a Paralympian he has every right to compete against able-bodied rivals in the 400 metres in the South Korean city of Daegu and at the London Olympics next summer.
As amiable and intelligent a sportsman as you would travel this far to meet, he is passionate, frustrated, angry at times, as he puts forward his case. “I think this will be one of the last interviews – maybe the last – I will ever do addressing this subject,” he says. “I’m pretty much done with it.”
The subject is simply this: some people contend that his Cheetah blades give him an advantage over non-amputees. After conducting tests four years ago, the IAAF, athletics’ governing body, concurred and banned him from able-bodied competitions.
Pistorius challenged the judgment, travelling to Rice University in Houston for further research which, he hoped, would support his case. After looking at fresh evidence, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld his appeal and freed him to race at the Beijing Olympics. However, he was seven-tenths of a second off the qualifying time and instead competed only in the Paralympics, adding three more gold medals to the one he won in Athens.
The debate then largely fell into abeyance. Until last month, that is, when Pistorius ran 45.07sec in Italy to qualify for the World Championships. The fundamental questions were suddenly asked again.
The answers, he knows, must be more than simply emotional. It is not enough to admire his disability-defying spirit – screaming with joy as he threw himself and his toy motorbike down the stairs of the family house as a two-year-old, learning to wrestle at six, driving the car around the grounds of his home at nine, playing football, cricket, water polo and rugby at school, taking up running at 16 after smashing his knee on the rugby field, racing superbikes with a speed freak’s relish (a fix he is rationing for now, even if he drives his BMW more like Lewis Hamilton) – and say he’s inspirational, so forget the science.
No, the argument is taking place at the very fringes of scientific knowledge. Let’s hear the case for the prosecution first. It is led by Dr Ross Tucker, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s exercise science and sports medicine department.
“This is more like Formula One than athletics,” he said. “Engineers can tinker with equipment to gain a speed advantage. Is that what we want? I think Pistorius does get an enormous advantage. Peter Weyand, one of the scientists who did the testing to clear him, recently published a paper saying he has a 12-second advantage. He should not have committed a number – that was a mistake – but the way he did it is sound, and when you look at the data, it’s quite clear that Pistorius’s mechanics are off the biological charts. So, too, are his metabolic markers.
“The Court of Arbitration decision that cleared him was a complete farce, scientifically, as was the testing that got him off.
“Pistorius ‘stole’ science to win that verdict. To hear Pistorius speak now, he’s saying that ‘the science cleared me’. It was the legal team and some, quite frankly, dishonest science that cleared him.”
I mention Tucker’s name to Pistorius. “I don’t want to speak about him,” he says, exasperated. The Pistorius camp is aware that Tucker is contacting the media to push his agenda. They say he has conducted no pertinent research. Nor, they say, has he published his views in a scientific journal, where it would be peer reviewed.
Pistorius adds: “There are many ill-informed arguments. There are people who are commenting for personal gain or to make a name for themselves or to be controversial.
“I know my opinion is right because I have sat with some of the top guys in the world. Hugh Herr has been voted by Time magazine as one of the smartest minds over the last decade. He really is a genius. Two others I have sat with are Robert Gailey and Rodger Kram. They have studied biomechanics and kinetics more than any other guys in the world.
“Hugh gets kind of worked up because a guy (Tucker, presumably) who has a background in sports science will come in and say his findings are wrong. It’s like taking two racing drivers – one is a kart racer; the other is an F1 racer. They are both racing drivers. But there is only one guy with the real knowledge and his views count more.”
The IAAF now back Pistorius’s stance, accepting the Court of Arbitration’s decision without rancour.
Pistorius adds: “I didn’t want to run if I was a cheat. I didn’t want to have the slightest doubts in my mind.
“I believe in the purity of sport. I don’t like people who take short cuts. I’d never be involved in sport if I had the slightest doubts.
“It does get to me quite hard. The worst thing is when somebody says my improvements this year are down to changing my prosthetic legs. My prosthetic legs have stayed the same for seven years, down to the bolts and the lining.
“Then I read somewhere that my legs travel faster than those of an able- bodied sprinter. In sprinting, your opposite arm and opposite leg travel together, so that would mean I am having to move my arms faster, which means I am having to burn more energy in my upper body.”
Herr, associate professor of media, arts and science and head of biomechatronics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dismisses Weyand’s change of heart – the 12-second estimate – as “nearly a back-of-the-envelope calculation, involving no new study and not rigorously peer reviewed”.
“Think about the prediction,” he says. “If you took Michael Johnson (world record-holder with 43.18sec) and amputated his legs he would run as fast as a galloping horse across the 400m event. He would run at approaching 30mph ... if we just cut his legs off.
“There are thousands of schoolboy runners who run 400m in 60sec. So if we amputated their legs they could run 48sec?
“How many people in the history of the Paralympic movement, bearing in mind that Cheetahs have been available for 15 years, have run that time? There’s been one human being. His name is Oscar Pistorius.
“Thousands of collegiate runners run under 50sec every year. If we cut their legs off, according to Weyand’s theory, they would run 38sec – which would shatter the world record.
“The fact is that the science has not yet matured in the area of the Cheetah prosthesis and its impact on amputee running. The peer-reviewed science conducted to date does not suggest an overall advantage in the 400m sprint race.
“Pistorius’s rapid leg movements are simply a compensatory action for impaired ground forces caused by the passive, compliant prostheses.
“There are many unknowns in this area of science. More unknowns than knowns. Can you say, ‘Joe Schmo, you can’t go to the Olympics based on science that is not fully advanced and does not command consensus?’ Can we ban a human being on that basis? No. Absolutely not.”
Why, then, the doubters?
“This story, if you will forgive the expression, has legs,” adds Herr. “There are people in the world, scientists and non-scientists, who are troubled by the idea of someone with an unusual body running against someone with a ‘normal’ body.
“People have said it will disrupt the sanctity of sport, the same language once used against those with dark-coloured skin. There remains a social, prejudicial perspective.”
Back over his coffee, Pistorius gets out his mobile phone. Twitter is full of support. Words like ‘inspiration’ abound. He appreciates the sentiment but does not seek special adulation.
“They ask how I stay so positive,” he says of some tweeters. “It’s as if I wake up with a giant smile on my face each day. I have the same bad days as every athlete. Times when I get fed up with eating chicken for the 20th time that month. Or my body hurts. Small messages of support can lift you. In South Korea the media are apparently so excited by my being there.
“I am really blessed.”
Since a speedboat accident two-and-a-half years ago that required him to be airlifted to hospital, his focus has increased, his weight (down 9.5 kg to 82.5kg) and times (a reduction of one second in 12 months) have tumbled.
Where will it end? Will he go so fast that he wins, makes a final, or takes a medal? If so, the debate over the legality of his Cheetahs will rage on ever more intensely.
“I really do think it will be tough for me to get down to a mid-44,” says Pistorius, whose personal best of 45.07sec is 0.46 off the fastest time this year, run by Grenadian Kirani James. “As for low 44s or 43s, I believe without being negative or cynical that’s not a league I’m in.
“If I break 45 next year, even if it’s 44.9, I’ll be happy. When I ran my personal best last month, it was the only perfect race I have ever done in seven or eight years of running. My back was sore. My neck was sore. I couldn’t train for a week. I struggled to sleep for two days.
“All I want is not to spend my career discussing my legs. I’ve trained as much as anyone. I have sacrificed as much as anyone.
“It’s like you interviewing an able-bodied sprinter and asking him if his pair of shoes make him great. He spends half his life saying, “It’s not my shoes; it’s my training”.
“I’m training s*** hard. And if my shoes are so great, why are other Paralympians not running the times I am?”
It sounded, to a compelling degree, as if he had answered his own question.