Oscar Pistorius: Will He Inspire U.S. to Pay Attention to Paralympics?

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Oscar Pistorius: Will He Inspire U.S. to Pay Attention to Paralympics?
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Olympic stories are often unpredictable. But we know exactly what will happen in the case of South African runner Oscar Pistorius, known as "the Blade Runner" for his distinctive prosthetic limbs, at the London Games.

Pistorius will get plenty of attention before he runs. He'll line up and run his heat in the 400-meter on the morning (London time) of Aug. 4. If he runs his fastest time of the year, he might advance to the semifinals the next evening. Then he'll fail to qualify for the final.

A few days later, the U.S. media will pack up and head home, paying scant attention to the hundreds of athletes with similar stories at the Paralympics.

The disconnect is jarring. We see Paralympians in ads now. BP features armless archer Matt Stutzman and wheelchair athlete Tatyana McFadden alongside Olympic stars Sanya Richards-Ross and Rebecca Soni. Citi has had memorable ads with sitting volleyball player Kari Miller.

Pistorius had to fight long and hard for his place in the Games, first in quasi-court settings and then on the track. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, not usually a sentimental body, ruled before the 2008 Olympics that he was eligible to compete with his prosthetic legs.

Yet the track is ruled by the clock, and Pistorius wasn't quite fast enough to be an Olympian in 2008. (Instead, he won three Paralympic gold medals.) After a strong run last year and an appearance at the World Championships, he spent all spring chasing the qualification standard for this year's Games before finally being selected for South Africa's team.

This summer, Olympic legend Michael Johnson again raised the issue of whether Pistorius' artificial legs give him an advantage, drawing a defensive reaction from many pundits, including a CNN blogger who quickly took the conversation to Godwin's Law territory. Pistorius had a calmer response, telling The Telegraph: "(Johnson) doesn’t question the technology that I’m using. He worries about the technology that manufacturers might come up with the future." (One reading of the Court of Arbitration's ruling says not to worry.)

Pistorius' personal record set off a wild celebration.

In the same interview, Pistorius and other Paralympians reinforce the fact that he has done far more with the supposed advantage of springy legs than anyone else. And he says, with no stars in his eyes, that a reasonable goal is "a decent place in the semi-final." When you see where his season's best time of 45.52 ranks among the top times of the year, you'll see why that goal is realism, not pessimism. (He did run a 45.07 last year, which would almost get him into the top 20 of 2012.)

He's not the first to cross the Paralympic/Olympic divide. Legally blind distance runner Marla Runyan competed in 2000 and 2004. Paralympic cross-county skier Brian McKeever, who suffered from the same genetic condition as Runyan, was on the Canadian squad in Whistler for the 2010 Games but appeared just long enough to accept, with tears and grace, his non-selection for the final race.

Many other countries have paid up for a piece of the Paralympic broadcasting feed. In his host country, Channel 4 signed up to get a piece of the 2012 spirit. Then plenty of international broadcasting giants have signed on—CCTV (China), NHK (Japan), Globo TV (Brazil), ABC (Australia—not the U.S. version), KBS (South Korea) and others. Canada also has a comprehensive TV/online offering.

NBC? Well, there's an online petition. But at the U.S. Paralympics site, all you'll find is a press release about the online feed from the International Paralympic Committee. 

And so Pistorius' presence in the Games, while sure to be brief, may be the only glimpse of a Paralympic athlete most Americans will see this year.

 

Beau Dure worked with USA Today to cover six Olympic Games from 2000 to 2010, traveling to Salt Lake in 2002 and the last three in Torino, Beijing and Vancouver. He tracks Olympic sports and other sports on Twitter (@duresport) and on his blog, SportsMyriad.com

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