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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Oscar Pistorius: Athletic Phenomenon and Anti-Landmine Activist

I normally don't watch track events or interviews with runners, but I happened to catch a TV story about Oscar Pistorius of South Africa at the London Olympics this summer.  Pistorius is the first differently abled runner to participate on equal terms in the Olympics with normally abled runners.  Pistorius has no legs, and runs on very lightweight prosthetics developed for athletes.  He's set records running in the Paralympics. I thought that his story was amazing and I wanted to find out more.  So I obtained a copy of  Oscar Pistorius's memoir, Blade Runner.  Below is my review.

Oscar  Pistorius's parents decided to have his legs amputated when he was 11 months old because he was born with malformed legs.   Prosthetics were his only chance to walk, but he got blisters and tumors which sidelined him at times.   Pistorius ascribes the tumors to a condition called neurofibromatosis (known as NF), but definitely implied that it was caused by the prosthetics which didn't fit properly.  This is why it is so essential that amputees have prosthetics that fit them.  When I looked up neurofibromatosis on Wikipedia, I discovered that it's genetic.  See neurofibromatosis on Wikipedia .  I am not sure if Pistorius was mistakenly diagnosed or if in fact there is a form of NF that can be acquired.

Pistorius has been criticized for wanting to compete in the Olympics.  Many feel that he's denigrating the Paralympics.  I don't think so.  In figure skating, the sport I know best,  a World Figure Skating Championship title is not considered worth as much as an Olympics title.  It's not because the World Figure Skating Championships are inferior.  It's because they aren't the Olympics. The Olympics is the premier sports competition.  For example, Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning has had a phenomenal career.  I consider him one of the greatest figure skaters in history.  He is certainly a favorite of mine.  He was the World champion four times, but he never so much as medaled at the Olympics.    Maybe it shouldn't matter for an athlete at so high a level of accomplishment as Kurt Browning, but it certainly did matter to him because he even re-qualified for the Olympics after he'd started skating professionally.  For more information about Kurt Browning see The Kurt Files .   It seems to me that Oscar Pistorius probably feels the same way about the Olympics as Kurt Browning did.  The Olympics was an opportunity to reach for the pinnacle of his sport. He didn't medal, but just being able to compete was victory enough for Pistorius.

In this memoir Pistorius deals with the charge that his prosthetics give him an advantage over able-bodied athletes.  He appealed to the Court of Arbitration For Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland arguing that only the advantages of his prosthetics had been considered, not their disadvantages. He won his appeal and was thus able to compete in the London Olympics.  

Being a great athlete isn't the only extraordinary thing about Oscar Pistorius.  He apparently cared about those who lost limbs to landmines, and had made this his cause even though he was not a victim of a landmine.    He did speaking engagements as an ambassador for The Mine Seeker Foundation, an NGO dedicated to locating and removing landmines.   He also assisted The Mine Seeker Foundation in establishing mobile prosthetic clinics.  (See Pistorius and Mobile Prosthetic Clinics) In Blade Runner he says that he consulted with a scientist about the best prosthetics for landmine victims in Africa.  He was advised that they need to be low maintenance because Africans generally don't have nearby facilities or funds for follow ups.  Yet what about blisters resulting from prosthetics that need to be refitted? That certainly requires follow up.

Update June 2013

Unfortunately, given recent events, Oscar Pistorius is no longer considered a role model for anyone. The justice system in South Africa will decide whether Oscar Pistorius is or is not guilty of murder, but I have to say that the defense arguments I have seen indicate what seems to be very poor judgement on his part. 

As I seek to come to grips with Oscar Pistorius actions this past Valentine's Day,  I encountered a very insightful article about Oscar Pistorius, South Africa and the relationship that had developed between them.  It's Oscar Pistorius: The End of the Rainbow from the UK Guardian.   Pistorius apparently had a pattern of reckless behavior.  An eventual tragedy may have been an inevitable result.


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