by Nick van der Leek
Is Oscar mentally fit to appear in court? We know his heroism is based on his physicality, particularly his physical fitness. His identity is formed around the idea of speed, the “fastest man with no legs.” But if fitness is quintessential to qualifying for an Olympic games, which Oscar has done on several occasions, does mental fitness play any role whatsoever? And during Oscar’s career, was his mental fitness ever really tested?
Let’s take a look at his backstory, for some answers.
Invitation in 2007 – then cancelled
The first breakthrough, curiously enough, is a non-event. The IAAF invites Pistorius in 2005 to compete with able-bodied athletes at a IAAF Grand Prix in Helsinki Finland. Pistorius passes this up due to school commitments, perhaps to maintain his mental fitness in the classroom. Two years later in Sheffield, in 2007, Pistorius competes with able-bodied runners, comes seventh, but is disqualified for running outside his lane (wet conditions may have played a role). But looking closer, there’s more to this event than meets the eye.
On March 26, 2007 the IAAF amends its competition rules to ban “any technical device that incorporates spring, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” The amendment, the IAAF says, is not aimed specifically at Pistorius. Even so the IAAF undertakes to monitor Pistorius during track events, even using high-definition cameras. One of the events they monitor is the 400 metre event in Sheffied, where Pistorius places last.
Aiming for China
Digging down, it’s quickly evident the conscious determination – and focus – involved in Pistorius’ attempt to make the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Let’s take it step by step.
In November 2007 Pistorius travels to Cologne Sports University to participate in a series of scientific tests. Dr. Peter Brüggemann, the university’s Professor of Biomechanics works under the auspices of Mr. Ellio Locatelli, a man charged with the IAAF’s technical issues. After two days of exhaustive testing, Brüggemann reports to the IAAF that Pistorius’ limbs use 25% less energy than able-bodied athletes. Brüggemann adds that less vertical energy is applied, further reducing mechanical energy by almost a third.
A month later, in an interview with Die Welt newspaper, Brüggemann says Pistorius’ artificial limbs give him “considerable advantages” and “I did not expect it [the advantage] to be so clear.” From these findings the IAAF rules in mid January 2008 that Pistorius cannot compete against able-bodied athletes in IAAF competitions, including the Summer Olympics.
How does Pistorius respond? He calls the decision of the IAAF “highly subjective” and “premature”. And, rather than accepting the decision, Pistorius travels to the USA to test “additional variables”.
Consider the scenario here. A disabled person, argues to be allowed to be seen as an able-bodied athlete, based on sound reasoning. In other words, science. Pistorius takes his carefully collected biomechanical measurements to Switzerland, and in Lausanne appeals the IAAF’s decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The variables Pistorius emphasises include:
- Brüggemann tests were only at full-speed when Pistorius was running in a straight line
- Brüggemann did not test the disadvantages, such as at the start and taking both turns in the 400 metre event.
- Pistorius claims the disadvantages exactly cancel out any advantages, meaning overall he has no “net advantage” over able-bodied athletes.
Curiously, in a TV interview Pistorius gave whilst still at school, he was recorded saying if it wasn’t for his prosthetics he would never be an Olympian. Other tests have subsequently shown, based on his physiology, had Pistorius had normal legs, he would be no better than an average college athlete. Pistorius’ aware of the high stakes (Olympics, world records, fame and sponsorship money) seems rather less humble in his approach to participation a few years later.
Even so, Pistorius’ reasoning is so effective and convincing the Swiss Court upholds Pistorius’ appeal, and the IAAF’s decision is revoked with immediate effect. This is a crucial turns point in Pistorius’ life and career. It’s mid-may 2008. With the summer games less than two months away, Pistorius says, “My focus throughout this appeal has been to ensure that disabled athletes be given the chance to compete and compete fairly with able-bodied athletes. In response to the announcement, I look forward to continuing my quest to qualify for the Olympics.”
And his studies? He has enrolled for a B.Comm, but he’s making more than enough money in his career. In the following month, a June 2008 interview for his University's website, Pistorius jokes: "I won't graduate soon. With all the training I have had to cut down on my subjects. Hopefully I'll finish by the time I'm 30!"
At this point Pistorius’ focus was on getting to the Olympics. In order to qualify, Pistorius will have to run 45.55 seconds (the Olympic “A” standard time) and 45.95 seconds (the “B” qualifying time). Qualification is restricted to a maximum of the fastest three athletes who achieve the “A” time per country, or to be selected as the fourth member of a relay squad (ie without needing to qualify).
But Pistorius says: "If I make the team I don't want to be the reserve for the relay, I want to be in the top four. I want to bring something to the race and make the relay stronger." South Africa’s athletics federation make a special exception for Pistorius, delaying the announcement of the team until July 17, to give him a chance.
IAAF vs Pistorius
In July, running in Milan, Pistorius only manages a time of 47.78 seconds. Nine days later, in Rome, Pistorius finishes sixth, but his time (46.62) is still outside the B qualifying time. Four days later the IAAF say they would prefer it if South Africa’s Olympic Committee not select Pistorius for the 4x 400 metres relay team “for reasons of safety”.
Pistorius calls this the “last desperate attempt” by the IAAF to prevent him from competing. The irony of course is that the IAAF originally invited Pistorius to compete in the first place, but having tested the fairness of their decision, changed their minds. Pistorius is now insisting not only on his right to compete alongside other athletes (in separate lanes), but running with them in the pack.
If one remembers the “variables” Pistorius highlighted in his appeal, that running corners and initial acceleration were disadvantageous; one can immediately see the opportunism and lack of consistency in his reasoning. In this sense, by participating alongside several relay teams, Pistorius stands a good chance of disrupting the performances of other athletes. But how does Pistorius respond? He threatens legal action if the IAAF do not confirm it had no objections to his participation in the relay.
The IAAF are cowed by this threat, and the publicity surrounding it and immediately release this statement: "The IAAF fully respects the recent CAS decision regarding the eligibility of Oscar Pistorius to compete in IAAF competitions, and certainly has no wish to influence the South African Olympic Committee, who has full authority to select a men's 4x400m relay team for the Beijing Olympics.”
In the end, Pistorius fails to qualify for the 400 metres. He manages a personal best on July 16, at the Spitzen Leichtathletik meeting, but his 46.25 seconds still falls short of the official qualifying time by 0.7 seconds. South Africa’s Athletics federation subsequently announces their 4 x 400 metres relay team. All four runners on the South African team have better times.
Interestingly, another South African athlete (a swimmer), Natalie du Toit, becomes the first amputee to qualify for the Summer Olympics. It is often incorrectly stated that Pistorius was the first amputee, but Du Toit is in fact the first.
Responding to a hypothetical (“would he accept a wild card entry to the Olympics”), Pistorius reasons as follows: "I do not believe that I would accept. If I have to take part in the Beijing Games I should do it because I qualified." Pistorius is quick to place the setback in perspective. “Sprinters,” he says, “usually reach their peak between 26 and 29. I will be 25 in London and I'll also have two, three years' preparation.”
Interestingly, by September, Pistorius time in the 400 metres is even slower. 47.49 seconds is a paralympic world record, but still well outside the Olympic qualifying time.
In 2011 Pistorius is beaten for the first time by America’s Jerome Singleton, during an international track event in New Zealand. Pistorius subsequently wins the 400 metres in 47.28 seconds. In summer of 2011 Pistorius posts three times under 46 seconds, all in able-bodied races. In July he runs an incredible 45.07 seconds. Given the gulf between 45.07 seconds and 47.28 seconds, times set five months apart in the same year, an inescapable question arises: is Pistorius adapting his athletic performances? Slower times against fellow Paralympians, faster efforts against able-bodied athletes?
In August 2011 Pistorius travels to Daegu, South Korea, where he will have another chance to run in a relay with able-bodied athletes. Guess what happens? During the heats Pistorius runs the opening leg in a race that breaks the South African record. Even so, Pistorius is dropped from his own team for running the slowest split (46.20) “for safety reasons” according to ASA’s statement.
He tweets at the time "Haven't been included in final. Pretty gutted." And later, commenting on the team’s performance in the final, “Was really hard watching, knowing I deserved to be part of it." In an interview afterwards he said, “I was unbelievably chuffed to have broken the South African record, and hopefully my name will stay on that for a long time to come."
But should it? Should a relay record be allowed to stand if one or more of the athletes uses prosthetics? Even if it does, how does that reflect on the abilities of the other athletes on the team who contributed to the record? This evidently didn’t concern SASCOC, because in July 2012 they announce Pistorius included in two London Olympic events, the 400 and 4x 400 metre relay races.
Pistorius subsequently becomes the first amputee runner (but not first amputee) to compete at an Olympic Games. Interestingly his time in the 400 metre heats is 45.44, just inside the Olympic qualifying time, but in the semifinal, he finishes last in 46.54 seconds (a time outside the Olympic qualifying time).
Ironically enough, having elected to allow Pistorius to run the relay’s third leg (“safety reasons” notwithstanding) , the second South African runner falls resulting in a last place finish. Nevertheless, the team appeals and are passed into the final by default. The Kenyan athlete, Vincent Kiilu who caused Mogwane to fall, is influential in this decision.
This time Pistorius runs last in a time of 45.9 seconds (in other words, slower than the Olympic qualifying time). The team finishes second last.
At the Paralympics Alan Oliveira of Brazil defeats Pistorius in the 200 metres. Pistorius immediately complains about the length of Oliveira’s blades. Pistorius later apologises for his outburst, but not for the content of his complaint. The IPC confirms Pistorius had complained six weeks before the event. Even so, all athletes in the final are tested and measured and the IPC confirms Oliveira’s blades are indeed proportional to his body.
In sum, Pistorius’ narrative shows an insistence to be made the exception to rules, and unfortunately – perhaps due to sympathy, or compassion – Pistorius is allowed time and again to have his way when common sense ought to have dictated otherwise. Incredibly, Pistorius flouted the rules and wishes not only of South Africa’s athletics federation, but also the IAAF, a body that had originally extended him an invitation. As the narrative demonstrates, Pistorius went so far as to threaten legal action against the IAAF if his wishes weren’t abided by, which signals a very high level of personal entitlement, and possibly greed. This same sense of entitlement is clearly evident in his strident attempts to participate in the relay event.
What’s craziest of all is this guy built a fortune on courting the media and building a brand on sponsorships worth millions. He was so careful in his tailoring of his image he goes so far as to dictate what his girlfriends should do in public. What they should wear, how they should introduce him, not to chew gum.
Given Pistorius’ record at pleading his own case, can one really be expected to believe – on a murder charge – he has suddenly lost the ability to assuage right from wrong? That his anxiety makes him dysfunctional? That if he knows how to market and sell his brand to sports corporation his knowledge of reasonable conduct is otherwise defective? Has his own defense forgotten their man who is too disabled for flight is has been claiming the right to run alongside able-bodied athletes his whole adult life. He was the star of the London Summer Olympic Games, and South Africa’s flag bearer? Craziest of all is the guy who wants, more than anything, to be seen as able bodied, having killed his girlfriend, turns to mental disability as his defence.