Oscar Pistorius: born to run

Oscar Pistorius in 2011 in Seoul, where he became the first Paralympian to win an able-bodied world championship medal
©Corbis Pistorius in 2011 in Seoul, where he became the first Paralympian to win an able-bodied world championship medal

Double-amputee Oscar Pistorius is working towards both the London Olympic and Paralympic Games

Oscar Pistorius is relaxing in the midday sun. He has had a tough training session that has left him “only just able to speak”, but he is not ready to leave the Cape Town track just yet. He sits with his notebook in hand and scribbles away, writing everything down. He does this every time he trains, and particularly after every race. “I suppose it’s about control, but about an hour or half an hour after every race, I write down everything about it. What I was thinking, imagining and how I felt. I write down what the weather was like and how training went beforehand. I write down how I got there, including whether the train was late or the traffic was bad. I write down what I ate and how I was feeling and details of any injuries, how much rain there was that day. Everything.

“I do it so that when it comes to a race in the future, if I’m not feeling great or haven’t eaten well, I can look back and know that the last time I ate badly, I still managed to win the race. Every race is won or lost in the head, so you have to get the contents of your head right. Writing things down helps you to control your thoughts.Pistorius has a gentle manner, but a very forceful personality. Within minutes of talking to him, you understand why he has become such a sporting phenomenon. He says his life is about getting everything right in training and on the track in order to produce the perfect race. He yearns for perfection. It’s a word that he repeats again and again as we talk on the phone. “You can only progress as well as your weakest link in training,” he says. “Being a perfectionist is everything. If you skimp, you lose. With me, it’s a mind-set, and I’ve always had it. I joke that if I toast bread, it has to be perfectly toasted. I suppose it’s a bit OCD, but that’s the way I am. I just don’t like shortcuts. If I do something, it has to be done properly.”

Pistorius is 25. He was born in Sandton, Johannesburg, into a middle-class family: his mother, Sheila, was a school counsellor while his father, Henke, ran various businesses. Oscar was their second child, following Carl and preceding his sister, Aimee. He came into the world without a fibula in either of his legs: the fibula is the slender bone which runs from the knee to the ankle. His parents were strongly advised that their son should have both of his legs amputated while he was very young and before he got used to life with them.

As a result, Pistorius became a double-amputee before his first birthday, and he doesn’t remember a time when he did have legs. When he thinks about his childhood he remembers a happy time, full of games, fun and a lot of sport. “I won a trophy for Greco-Roman wrestling when I was six,” he says. “I remember taking up boxing when I was around nine. It felt like nothing was off limits.” Many people think that an important part of his later success can be attributed to the fact that he adjusted to prosthetic legs from an early age.

Pistorius’s parents divorced when he was six years old and his father moved out, leaving him to spend seven years in the company of his mother and two siblings, before going away to board at the highly respected Pretoria Boys High School at 13.

The thing he remembers most about his school was the sporty environment. Despite his disability, he competed in triathlons, water polo, cricket and tennis, playing against able-bodied children. He says he never felt different from the other children, and certainly never felt inferior.

Pistorius says it was his mother’s love, coupled with her “no-nonsense attitude” and her refusal to see him as in any way different to anyone else, that gave him the confidence to live his life to the full. He tells a story about her saying to his brother, Carl: “Put your shoes on.” Then saying to him: “And you, put your legs on.”

But when Oscar was 15, his mother died suddenly from an adverse drug reaction, following a hysterectomy. It was a devastating time for him. He says his mother is still with him every day, and in everything he does. He has the date of her death tattooed on his arm. He says she taught him to believe in himself. “That’s what she gave me,” he says. “That’s a lot to give a child … self-belief.”

Pistorius threw himself into school life after his mother’s death, and enjoyed all the sports on offer. He loved rugby, but when he shattered his knee playing the sport in 2004, he was told to stop playing until fully recovered and advised to take up track running to recuperate. He did so, and entered a school race in the process. He ran the 100m in 11.72secs. When his father looked up this time, he established that his 17-year-old son was faster than the current Paralympic record.

His father spoke to the school coach, who referred Pistorius to an athletics club. Just six months after starting to train as an athlete, he won gold in the Athens Paralympic Games at 200m, breaking the world record. But it wasn’t enough. Pistorius, who had been used to competing against able-bodied runners, wanted to continue doing so, and in March 2005, at the South African Championships, he finished sixth in the 400m final. He went on to win golds in the 100m, 200m and 400m in the Paralympics in Beijing, in 2008, the first athlete ever to do that. Last year, in South Korea, he became the first Paralympian to win an able-bodied medal – a silver – at the IAAF World Athletics Championships.

Along the way, Pistorius has courted a great deal of controversy. He runs on carbon-fibre prosthetics called Flex-Foot Cheetahs, which stand out because they look very unlike traditional false legs. They are J-shaped, and though very difficult to walk on – it is hard to balance while wearing them – he has found them extremely effective for running. (He uses traditional plastic prostheses for daily living.)

The reason the prosthetics work so well is that they are very agile. They attach at the back of the socket on the sprinter’s leg, and have been designed to mimic the running characteristics of the cheetah. They copy the way in which the cat’s hind leg works, and the way in which the foot extends and reaches out to “paw the ground” while the thigh muscles pull the body forward.

Amputees have been running on Cheetahs since the late 1990s, so Pistorius was certainly not the first, but he is the fastest.

The Flex-Foot prosthetics are perfectly legal in Paralympics sport, but in 2007 his use of them in able-bodied races was challenged. The International Association of Athletics Federations filmed him running in races over the summer. Scientists watched the tapes and decided they conferred some advantage to him. Competition rules were changed banning “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. Pistorius was, effectively, banned from able-bodied sport. He went on to take part in a number of scientific tests at the end of the year and they appeared to convince the scientists further that Pistorius had an advantage. It was decided that his limbs used 25 per cent less energy than runners with natural legs running at the same speed, and that they led to less vertical motion combined with 30 per cent less mechanical work for lifting the body.

But Pistorius decided to fight back. He hired lawyers and his own scientists and challenged the ruling. At the Court of Arbitration for Sport at the end of April 2008, the decision was revoked with immediate effect. The main reason was that the original tests had looked only at Pistorius when he was running, but hadn’t taken into account how much more complicated starting and accelerating were for him. “It was a difficult time and a frustrating time, but I had to do it,” he says. “I’d always competed against able-bodied runners and wanted to be able to do so again. I also knew that it was important for me to take a stand now for other athletes in the future.”

It’s certainly true that Pistorius has always competed in able-bodied races and doesn’t want always to be judged on his strengths as a disabled athlete. “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have,” he says.

It is interesting that his personal trainer, Jannie Brooks, whom he works with on his fitness away from the track, has said that he trained Pistorius for six months before realising that he didn’t have any lower legs, because his prosthetics were covered by his tracksuit trousers.

“I want to be treated like any other athlete and I want to be able to challenge myself and perform at the highest level. As soon as you push boundaries, you meet with opposition, but I’m not doing anything wrong.”

One thing he is very keen to clear up is the misapprehension that because he wants to compete in able-bodied sport, he thinks the Paralympics is less of a competition than the Olympics. “It’s not true. I’m passionate about being a Paralympian – very, very proud,” he says. “I’d never miss Paralympics races to compete in the Olympics; there’s a two-week gap between the Games. If I’m blessed enough to qualify to compete in both, that’s what I’ll do. It’s not as complicated as people think. I’m a competitor. I want to make the most of my God-given talent. That’s all.”

Pistorius’s God-given talent is something that comes up a number of times in our conversation. He has a strong faith, which he says came from his mother; she was very active in the church and he remembers saying his prayers every night in boarding school. He considers his faith an important part of his life. “I believe it’s vital to have respect for a greater power. I love the basic principles of religion; the idea that our actions should be for the betterment of mankind. I think that I’ve been given a talent from God and I should be humble and use it the best I can.” The tattoo on his left shoulder states: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.”

The subject of always doing the right thing also arises when I ask Pistorius about his own heroes. Without pausing for thought, he says “Gandhi”. He then adds James Dean, and confesses to having pictures of the late film star on the walls of his South African home.

“Gandhi stayed in South Africa for a while, so he’s of interest to me. The most important thing about him is that he made a stand for what he believed in. Most people go through life without doing that, without even having any strong beliefs. The world would be a better place if more people were like that. Nelson Mandela also inspires me – he has sacrificed so much. The way he reacted to what happened to him is astonishing. Why isn’t he angry? He has brilliant morals. I’d like to be like that.”

James Dean is a hero for different reasons. “He’s just cool. You know – I work hard and I’m competitive, but I also love that cool-guy stuff.”

It has to be said that Pistorius is very cool. He is always well-dressed (he was voted South Africa’s best-dressed man by GQ magazine), he is good-looking and has a band of female admirers. He drives smart cars and loves motorbikes, though they have been put to one side while he concentrates on the 2012 Games and on staying fit and uninjured. He isn’t being over-cautious – he has “previous” for getting injured on his “boy toys”. He crashed his power boat into a submerged pier four years ago and broke two ribs, his jaw and his eye socket, resulting in 172 stitches. Then, while riding his dirt bike, he hit a fence and turned around to see one of his prosthetic legs hanging from it. The boat and the bikes had to go after that, and he admits to missing them. He reads now (mainly biographies of the great and the good) and paints, but says neither makes up for the thrill of the speed on the water.

Pistorius has a comfortable life today. He lives in Pretoria, in a Mediterranean-style house in a gated community with an old friend from high school. He earns well over $1m a year, mainly from endorsement deals and appearance fees. He also dabbles in business ideas; he owns six thoroughbred racehorses and, until recently, he was a partner in a company that services Ferraris. He once bought two white tigers, which he sold to a zoo in Canada. In addition, he is working towards a business and sports science degree at the University of Pretoria.

His father is still alive and works in dolomite mining in the Eastern Cape. Pistorius is not close to him, but describes himself as “blessed when it comes to the people in my life”. He says he has “tons” of friends and though he recently split up with his long-time girlfriend, he says he is “in a very happy place”.

His main priority now, of course, is the 2012 Olympics. He will be competing in the 100m, 200m and 400m in the Paralympics and is hoping to qualify for the 400m race in the Olympic Games. In an effort to be the best he can, he has lost 19kg over the past three years, and says he has never been in better shape. “If you’ve got extra padding you’ve got to justify it. It wasn’t adding to my power or strength so it had to go. I can be quite brutal with myself, but it’s only so that I can be the best I can. At the end of my career I want people to think of me as someone who gave their best and didn’t let their talent get away from them. It would be awful if they thought otherwise.”

When I ask him what he wants most in the world, he goes silent for a while – the first pause of our interview. Then: “I’d like to have a career without regrets.” There’s a pause again and he corrects himself. “No, what I really mean is that I’d like a life without regrets. I’d like a life in which I made the most of my God-given talents and died without regrets.”