Give Now

2012 Archives

The Fast Life of Oscar Pistorius


The following ran in the Jan. 22, 2012, edition of the New York Times magazine. Peter Weyand, physiologist, provided expertise for this story.

January 25, 2012

By Micheal Sokolove

Oscar Pistorius trains inside a converted garage at the home of his personal trainer, a former professional rugby player. Iron pull-up bars and a variety of ropes and pulleys are bolted to brick walls. Free weights are lined up on the floor, along with hammered-together wooden boxes that serve as platforms for step-ups and standing jumps. Some of the equipment is clamped to an exterior wall of the garage, opposite an uncovered patio; when it rains, athletes just carry on and get soaked. “It’s old-school,” Pistorius said as we drove up to the place early one morning. “Some of the guys who train here, they bang it so hard, they often get sick in the garden. Nobody judges them.”

I visited with Pistorius last month in Pretoria, South Africa, where he was born 25 years ago without a fibula in either of his legs. (The fibula runs between the knee and ankle, beside the tibia.) His parents yielded to doctors’ recommendations that his lower legs should be amputated, and at 11 months, they were cut off just below the knee. At 13 months, he was fitted with prostheses. At 17 months, he was walking. Now he is among the top-ranked 400-meter runners in the world and a favorite to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics this summer. If he achieves this goal, he will be the first person without intact biological legs to compete in an Olympic running event. If he runs for South Africa in the 4-by-400-meter relay — and if Usain Bolt, the world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter dashes does the same for Jamaica, as he hopes to — the finals of that event could be the marquee moment of the Summer Games.

In media accounts, Pistorius is often referred to as the Blade Runner because of the J-shaped carbon-fiber prostheses that he wears in competition. He has also been called the “fastest man on no legs.” The nicknames accentuate his otherness, as if it is important to set him apart from the rest of the field. An article published by the Berman Institute of Bioethics, at Johns Hopkins University, speculated that Pistorius may be a “pioneer on the posthuman frontier,” whatever that might mean. For what it’s worth, a South African magazine recently anointed Pistorius the country’s sexiest celebrity.

The artificial legs Pistorius runs on, called Flex-Foot Cheetahs and manufactured by an Icelandic company, have been a point of contention, and he has had to fight efforts to exclude him. But amputees have been running on the Cheetahs since the late 1990s. None have approached his best time, 45.07 seconds, in the 400 meters. ...

In his appeal to the Court of Arbitration, Pistorius was represented by Jeffrey Kessler, a Manhattan lawyer well known in the U.S. for negotiating collective bargaining agreements on behalf of N.F.L. and N.B.A. players. Kessler demolished the I.A.A.F.’s case, and it may not have been that difficult to do so. “All of it was pretty much nonsense,” Herr said of the I.A.A.F.’s conclusions. Another member of the team that tested Pistorius in Houston, Peter Weyand, a professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University, put it differently. “They brought the wrong scientific case forward,” he told me. ...