Oscar Pistorius has made history today by getting selected for South Africa’s 4x400m Olympics relay team. He will become the first amputee track athlete to compete at the Games. He came very close to qualifying for the individual 400m, missing out by less than a quarter of a second in his final qualifying race.
Pistorius was born without lower leg bones, and runs on crescent-shaped carbon fibre blades known as “Cheetah Flex-Feet”. Last year, he became the first amputee athlete to compete in the World Athletics World Championships, where he made the 400m semi-final.
The issue of whether his prosthetic limbs give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes has been fiercely debated throughout his career. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its competition rules, banning “any technical device... that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. The IAAF denied that the amendment was specifically aimed at Pistorius, although it did prevent him from competing against able-bodied athletes at top-level meets. However, the decision was overturned in May 2008 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which found that there was no evidence that Pistorius’ prosthetics gave him a net advantage over his competitors.
It was this ruling that paved the way for today’s selection. There will still be dissenters – those who feel that Pistorius should have to compete only in the Paralympic Games – but with the CAS ruling behind him and a relay qualifying time under his belt, there is nothing stopping him now. Now that he’s proved that performance is really the only criteria, Pistorius could well be just the first in a series of amputee athletes who make their nations’ squads. Whatever his athletic achievements turn out to be, he’s made history just by getting selected.
Pistorius is hugely popular in South Africa. And given that his compatriots came home from the Beijing Olympics with just one athletics medal, at least one whole nation will be cheering if the “Blade Runner” strikes gold.