Often awe-inspiring, sometimes controversial, the image of Oscar Pistorius bestrode London’s Olympic and Paralympic summer. As the first global Paralympic superstar, his feats on the track, allied to a gregarious personality and some canny image building, have made him a multi-millionaire and one of the world’s most recognisable sportsmen off it.
Not only has he transcended the world of the Paralympics, even while helping the movement grow to unprecedented heights, Pistorius is one of a rare handful of athletes to transcend the world of sport.
From the moment it was confirmed that he would become the first double amputee to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, his place in history was assured.
But few could have predicted just how integral he would become to the narrative of London’s Games. For many, the sight of him swapping race numbers with the eventual gold medallist Kirani James after their 400m semi-final was one of the images of the Olympics.
With the eyes of the world on Pistorius following a typically eloquent press conference on the eve of the Games, his Paralympics did not exactly run according to script.
The 26-year-old ignited a huge controversy and accusations of sour grapes after he sparked a row over the length of blades that should be allowed immediately after being beaten by the Brazilian Alan Oliveira in the 200m. In an epic 100m final, to deafening roars, he was defeated by Britain’s Jonnie Peacock.
But he still came away with two gold medals, in the 400m and 4x100m relay, to add to the hat-trick of golds he won in Beijing. And while he apologised for the timing of his comments over Oliveira’s blades, he stuck by his central point that the International Paralympics Committee had not done enough to standardise the length allowed.
Other athletes rallied to his cause, but the South African’s case was somewhat undermined by the fact that he was left to rely on his shorter blades because they were the ones he had permission from the IAAF to run on in able-bodied competition. Having argued that his dominance was down to his ability alone rather than technology, he now appeared to be acknowledging the opposite.
It was shortly before that Beijing Games that the debate over whether his prosthetic blades conferred an advantage over non-disabled runners became a huge talking point. He was initially banned from non-disabled competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations, but the ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
After taking expert advice, it ruled that the IAAF had failed to take into account the disadvantages Pistorius experienced in running with blades, which broadly balanced out any benefit.
Pistorius has also consistently argued that he has been wearing the same Flex‑Foot Cheetah blades for nearly a decade, proving his improved performances and times were down to hard work and training rather than technology.
The sprinter failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, but ran in the South African 4x400m relay team at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, amid huge media interest. Although he ran in both the heats and the semi-finals, he was not selected for the final, where his team-mates went on to win a silver medal.
Born without fibulae, Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. Encouraged by his mother, a key influence in his life who died when he was 15, Pistorius was urged to make the most of his ability rather than focus on his disability, competing alongside non-disabled athletes in a range of sports from an early age.
He has often quoted from a letter, written by his mother when he had his legs amputated and intended to be read in later life: “The real loser is never the person who crosses the finishing line last. The real loser is the person who sits on the side. The person who does not even try to compete.”
He came to athletics late, starting to compete in 2004 after a serious rugby injury left him looking for an alternative sport at 17. His natural talent and explosive speed were obvious immediately and he set a new world record of 11.51 seconds in the 100m at a meeting in his native Pretoria after just two months of training. At the Athens Paralympics, he won a gold and a bronze and set his sights on competing against non-disabled athletes.
But it was the four-year period between Beijing and London that catapulted him to the position of one of the biggest names in world sport as he spent a significant amount of time crisscrossing the globe on behalf of a growing band of sponsors and corporate backers.
Pistorius has also used his profile to boost causes close to his heart, including the Mineseeker Foundation for those injured by landmines. Amid all that, he never lost sight of his London goal – redoubling his efforts in training and taking the best advice available on nutrition and performance.
In his native South Africa, he is considered one of the country’s biggest sporting heroes and his ability to bridge the worlds of disabled and non-disabled sport, as well as his eloquence in fostering a shift in attitude among those confronted with his talent, have seen him twice named in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Pistorius’ success in defending his 400m title on the last day of the London Paralympics provided a fitting coda to an event that had surpassed all expectations as he reflected on a draining, unforgettable, summer.
Perhaps inevitably, it was Pistorius who personified many of the issues around the London Paralympics – from the vastly increased profile that has made him one of the most recognisable sportsmen on the planet to the complex debates about classification and technology that the movement now has to wrestle with.
“The beauty of life is that you’re always learning. It’s easy to be gracious when you win, but to be humble when you lose is not so easy and I’ve had to learn that,” he said after helping the South Africans to gold in the 4x100m.
In his 26 years, Pistorius has already led a life more dramatic than most three times his age. He could not have known then the further tragic, dramatic turn it would take just five months later.