Athletics: The 'Oscar effect' that transformed a movement

By Robin Scott-Elliot

When Oscar Pistorius first lined up in the 100m at the Paralympic Games he barely knew the names of the competitors either side of him in Athens' Olympic Stadium. And in turn they would have had little clue about the young man from Pretoria, let alone that he was still two months shy of his 18th birthday.

Eight years on, Pistorius is one of sport's most recognisable figures, transcending his sport, athletics, like few others and the Paralympics like no other. It is not only he whose fame has grown, the Games in which he will compete for the third time have developed too and so have the athletes that will compete against him.

"I ran in Athens but up to the beginning of that year I didn't know much about the Paralympics," said Pistorius. "I didn't know the guys' names who lined up beside me for my first race. I think the biggest turn-out was 20,000 on one Saturday, on the rest of the days it was between seven and 12,000.

"Four years later in Beijing you had full houses most days but the perception was still lacking I believe in not only disabled sports but in people living with disabilities. In the last two or three years there has been such a shift really with the excitement building up to these Games.

"Athens was such an amazing experience. I wish I had got involved in Paralympic sport earlier. It has been the most amazing last eight years. With this being my third Paralympic Games I'm a little envious of all the youngsters who are going to be able to step out on the track for the first time and experience this because the Paralympic movement has grown so, so much over the last eight years. It's been great to see the transformation of the sport.

"You definitely see the standard has picked up tremendously, eight years ago the time difference between the guy who won and the guy who came last in the 100m final was just over two seconds. Now it is just over half a second and that is a testament to how many more Paralympic athletes there are, people with disabilities not letting their disabilities get the better of them, just picking up and saying 'look this is the situation I am in, I shouldn't treat myself any differently because I don't want anyone else to treat me differently, let's get on and focus on my abilities rather than my disabilities'. That makes me very proud to be part of the Paralympic movement."

Pistorius will return to the Olympic Stadium to race in four events, the 100m, 200m, 400m and the 100m relay, and does not regard himself as favourite to win all four. Now he is all too well aware of the runners who are likely - given a successful qualification - to line up either side of him.

"The 100m is going to be the biggest challenge for me," he said and then runs through a list of names, Jonnie Peacock, Jerome Singleton, Blake Leeper, Arnu Fourie, Alan Oliveira, a Briton, two Americans, a South African (and his room-mate) and a Brazilian which makes this the most eagerly awaited race of the Games.

"It is going to be a strong event, closely contested and that is what makes it such a great spectator event. If I can get in the top three I will be very happy. I have moved away from the 100, I ran my first 100m in 16 months last weekend. The top guys are running quicker than I am and it is their focus. I have to be realistic and say the 200 and the 400 are the events I am better suited for."

It is five years since he recorded his best time of 10.91sec in the 100m as his abilities have proved better suited to longer sprints. Pistorius ran the 400m in the Olympics, making the semi-final, and the 400m relay, in which South Africa reached the final.

"That was such a blessing," he said of his Olympic experience. "It was a competition I had been trying to qualify for for five years. Being able to run against the world's best out here really inspired me. What is nice is that I have got used to the track and the intensity. The Paralympics have been sold out for many weeks and there will be the same passionate crowd there so hopefully I can use that experience to my advantage for the first race or two."

His first race is on Saturday, his first final, the 200m, on Sunday. That should produce a gold medal. There should also be one in the 400m, with the 100m and relay less easy to forecast. Whatever is to happen the 25-year-old already has more than made a name for himself, and helped create an environment in which his competitors' names are better known too.

- THE INDEPENDENT

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