By Brian Brown
NBC Olympics on assignment for Rock Center
Come with me to South Africa …
Come with me to a track meet in a wind-whipped city flush against the roiling Indian Ocean … Port Elizabeth.
A 400-meter race is about to be run. Eight athletes are walking to the starting line. Seven of them have legs.
One does not.
Or more correctly, one has legs that conclude at the knees. And this athlete – even just walking – is riveting to watch.
At first, Oscar Pistorius seems like someone who has stepped out of the future.
His gait has the quality of a giant cat on the prowl, if such a creature were equipped with flipper-like feet instead of paws. The means of Oscar’s motion do take the name of a big cat: they’re called Cheetahs. And these Flex-foot Cheetah blades – black, L-shaped, made of carbon fiber – do provoke thoughts of altered, amped-up super beings from a James Cameron science-fiction epic.
As Oscar approaches, model handsome, outfitted in the latest Oakley shades and sleek Nike sportswear, with an admirably sculpted upper body, you can understand why anyone might wonder if this is a peek into our evolutionary future: half man, half machine. Just the words carbon fiber conjure the notion of cutting-edge, space-age technology.
But if you stay with this scene a little longer, you notice something more. Something flawed about his futuristic-looking prosthetics. Pistorius is walking very carefully, not at all with the steady carefree confidence of a cheetah, but more like a teetering circus performer on stilts, locked in a balancing act that requires immense concentration.
In fact, as you learn when you visit Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, you find out that forward motion atop vertical boomerangs requires supreme balance to keep from tipping over. You’re told that carbon fiber is nothing new, has actually been around for 60 years, well before we put a man on the moon. You learn that Oscar’s Cheetah blades were made nearly 20 years ago. You learn that they do not at all turn Oscar into a springy human pogo stick. In fact, when you try to bend an unattached Cheetah blade, you understand that carbon fiber is nearly rock hard and largely inflexible – it does not contain an internal spring.
You also later learn that this man walking toward you … the one who appeared at first to be like a visitor from a future century … is likely in pain. When any amputee walks with their prosthetic devices, there is often soreness, sometimes even a degree of discomfort no amount of painkillers can relieve. It remains a fundamental engineering problem to seamlessly connect skin and bones with a man-made device – though the industry is doing its best to improve the interface: the pocket where the amputated limb meets the prosthetic.
Running with prosthetics makes the problem worse – Cheetahs are meant for sports, not extended wear. That’s why as soon as every race is over, the first thing Oscar Pistorius does is plop himself down on a patch of grass to switch his legs: exchanging his jet-black blades for a more-humanlike skin-colored pair.
When you are able to meet and listen to Oscar Pistorius, and listen to and learn from the remarkable people who have been supporting his unprecedented aspiration to be the first amputee to ever run at the Olympics, you come to understand that Oscar is not at all, in any sense, a man out of the future.
You learn that real legs are really, really better than the replacements that science has made thus far … that tendons, ligaments and muscles do far greater things than a prosthetic device made from technology that is decades old.
You learn that if Oscar Pistorius was truly bionic, if his artificial limbs had sensors and muscle-like actuation and computational intelligence, he would not only be bionic but he’d also be unbeatable. And though a bionic age may arrive before the conclusion of the 21st century, it won’t be tomorrow.
And you learn some other truths about his attempt to reach the 2012 London Games:
A truth: Though in 2008, after two days of testing, the IAAF – track’s world governing body – ruled Pistorius had an advantage over able-bodied competitors, that decision was reversed only months later on appeal, when The Court of Arbitration for Sport voted unanimously that Pistorius had no advantage. In their findings, the CAS noted an IAAF process that had gone “off the rails” in a rush to judgment. The CAS's decision, now more than four years old, still stands.
A truth: There is no scientific consensus that Oscar is at a competitive advantage. In fact, the most extensive testing on the subject was instigated by Pistorius himself, who – to help build his case before the CAS – flew 9,000 miles to Houston, where experts submitted him to nearly three weeks of scientific tests.
A truth: Oscar Pistorius is always playing catch-up against able-bodied runners. When the gun goes off, Oscar’s blades don’t react with the explosiveness of the human leg. It takes him a few moments to churn his Cheetahs to top speed. In the short distance of sprint events, like the 400 meters, fast starts are crucial. And there is little Pistorius can do about immediately losing contact with the field.
A truth: As thousands of Paralympians in recent decades have defied their disabilities, only one disabled athlete has run the 400 meters fast enough to dream that he might, possibly, one day qualify for an Olympic Games. That one person is Oscar Pistorius.
A truth: When you visit South Africa, you see that Oscar’s fellow athletes see him not as a threat, but simply as a competitor to beat. And when you see him swarmed by children black and white and brown, you understand that he is a vital figure of unity for a country that is still fitfully trying to dissolve racial divides.
A final truth: Oscar Pistorius is a figure of inspiration and healing, not at all the first of an army of unbeatable, artificially enhanced athletes. More likely, he’s the first and last of a kind … one of one.
He is one step away, one race away from the summit of his remarkable journey: a spot on the South African Olympic team for the 2012 London Games. And though the math of his sport is pretty simple, for Pistorius it should be utterly implausible: run the 400 meters faster than all but a handful of people in the entire world.
This Saturday, at the Adidas Grand Prix, Pistorius comes to the media capital of America, to New York, to secure that spot. And when this mesmerizing figure carefully walks cat-like onto the track at Randall’s Island, he’ll be able to look across the East River at Manhattan’s cityscape, an image of soaring possibility that has long summoned great achievers from across the globe.
45.30 seconds. That’s how fast Pistorius has to run one lap of the track. There may not be more than two dozen people in the entire world who can run that fast right now. But Pistorius has gone even faster in this event, and he is more deeply driven than ever to do it again … this man whose defective lower legs were amputated in infancy … who has never known what it is like to walk on two feet … this double amputee who has never ever thought of himself as one bit disabled.
Here’s a final truth: Don’t feel in the least bit apologetic about rooting your heart out for Oscar Pistorius. To give global notice to such spirit is the essential purpose of the Olympic Games.