Oscar Pistorius: bridging the divide

Oscar Pistorius is one of the few athletes who has managed to bridge the divide between disabled and non-disabled sport, shattering myths and preconceptions along the way about the limits of human achievement.

With his good looks, easy manner and remarkable backstory of overcoming adversity, the lightning-fast South African known globally as the "Blade Runner" was perhaps always destined to become the face of modern disabled sport.

In naming him as one of the world's top 100 most influential people, Time magazine called Pistorius "the definition of global inspiration".

The widespread shock at his arrest for allegedly killing his girlfriend is a measure of his stellar status in sport and beyond.

The 26-year-old from Pretoria who was born without lower leg bones grew up to race non-disabled athletes on his custom-made carbon fibre blades -- and beat them -- wanted nothing more than to achieve his childhood dream of competing at the Olympics.

For a time, red tape conspired against him after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that the prostheses he uses gave him an unfair advantage.

He successfully appealed the decision, although ultimately failed to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008.

Nevertheless, Pistorius took the Beijing Paralympics by storm, winning the 100m, 200m and his favoured 400m in a new world record time of 47.49sec.

The achievement was a fitting one for a competition that had developed from humble beginnings on the sports field of a British hospital for World War II veterans with spinal injuries to become the world's second-biggest sporting competition.

The first Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960, with just eight sports and 400 athletes from 23 countries. The opening ceremony attracted a crowd of just 5,000, according to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

Beijing took the concept -- for long viewed by some as a voyeuristic sideshow or politically correct tokenism -- to new levels, with packed venues, enthusiastic crowds and a record 3,951 athletes from 146 countries competing in 20 sports.

London last year topped even that, with 4,237 athletes from 164 countries performing in front of 2.7 million people and millions more around the world on television.

Even though Pistorius was the first double amputee athlete to compete at the Olympics, he was not the first with a disability.

South African swimming great Natalie Du Toit competed at the Commonwealth Games and finished 16th out of 24 in the 10km open water swim at the Beijing Olympics. She bowed out of the sport last year, with 13 Paralympic golds to her name.

Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka, who was born without a right hand and forearm, has also played in both competitions and last year said her aim was to win an Olympic medal at the next Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

But neither were as big as Pistorius, whose achievements and profile guaranteed media interest and packed venues but also earned him lucrative endorsement contracts and a luxury lifestyle.

Hollywood star Tom Hanks was even rumoured to be keen to make a film about his life.

Pistorius' appearance as the first athlete with a disability to compete at the athletics World Championships in 2011, where he won 4x400m silver, only served to increase expectations for London 2012.

In the end, he failed to qualify for the Olympic 400m final and was out of the medals in the 4x400m, while in the Paralympics, he lost his 100m and 200m crown but won gold in the 400m and the 4x100m.

Pistorius -- cited as an inspiration by many younger disabled athletes -- had always said that it would be difficult to retain all three Paralympic titles, given the "phenomenal" development in disabled sprinting over four years.

But such was his pull that even his heats were watched by a capacity 80,000 crowd at the Olympic Stadium and he dominated headlines for days after his 200m defeat for claiming that he lost because his rivals had longer artificial blades.

The controversy led to an unprecedented debate about the technical specifications of running prostheses.

"Years ago when we had absolutely no media awareness and no coverage we would never have had this," said IPC media and communications director Craig Spence at the time. "It's a sign of how far Paralympic sport has progressed."

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