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`Blade Runner' breaks ground against best in 400

Pistorius, a double amputee with an Olympic goal, is disqualified in debut against top field in England.

July 16, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND — Through the slanting windows down into the athletes' warmup area beneath Don Valley Stadium, you could see eight elite runners scattered across 15 folding chairs just 10 minutes before their 400-meter race.

Some wore the stare of concentration, some stood and stretched their legs, the world champion Jeremy Wariner sipped water beneath his perpetual sunglasses, and the whole thing looked run-of-the-mill except that the runner on the far right seat of the front row had no legs.

In another futuristic wrinkle along a 21st-century mission, South African Oscar Pistorius, 20, on Sunday night made his debut against a top field of able-bodied athletes. In rainy chill that validated the common phrase "dreadful English weather," he finished a well-beaten seventh, then was disqualified for having run outside his No. 8 lane in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix race.

He ran the 400 meters in 47.65 seconds, well off his personal best of 46.34 and his 46.90 from Friday in a fair-weather tuneup in Rome.

He called it "a little steppingstone" and said, "I make of it that I've got a lot of training ahead of me," and daydreamed out loud about the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He vacuumed attention from the actual race winner, Angelo Taylor, who'd fielded about one and a half questions before Pistorius entered the room and magnetized the media scrum.

He somewhat dazzled the fifth-place finisher, 20-year-old Englishman Martyn Rooney, who likened it to seeing a superstar and said, "The guy has been on TV all week."

And he actually finished, as 2004 Paralympic champion, ahead of the 2004 Olympic champion, but only because Wariner pulled up after tripping and almost sprawling to the track out of the blocks.

And then, with a twinge of exasperation, he fielded the questions that have gathered not completely unlike clouds, about whether, given more training and experience, his carbon-fiber artificial legs eventually will afford him unacceptable advantage over his rivals' flesh and blood and lactic acid.

"If I wasn't convinced" it's fair, Pistorius said, "I wouldn't be running."

The sport's governing body wasn't convinced last year when it barred him and still wasn't convinced in June when it unbarred him, and remains unconvinced as it films him running as part of its ongoing contemplation.

What the International Assn. of Athletics Federations has not done is contact him, a matter that peeves him as he said, "I personally think it would be a lot more productive to do testing with me rather than against me."

Some, including IAAF director of development Elio Locatelli and former British 400-meter star Roger Black, already have expressed anything from reservations to misgivings. Said Rooney: "I can see both points of view," and, "It's not bad publicity" for a sport that's had a ton of the same. Said Australia's John Steffensen, who finished second Sunday night: "He's definitely an inspiration for us as we are very privileged to be able-bodied, to have such healthy bodies."

Soon thereafter, Steffensen grinned and said, "Long as he doesn't run quicker than me."

Pistorius intends to learn whether he can, aiming for Beijing and, failing that, London 2012, undaunted by his Sunday night decrescendo, while saying of the Paralympics, "It does exist for people like me, but I think if I can cross the boundaries ... "

Boundaries haven't fazed him much since he joined the world in Pretoria on Nov. 22, 1986. Born without fibulas, without ankles and without calf bones, he had his legs amputated at 11 months, yet played rugby as a schoolboy until an injury steered him toward running five years ago, by now using blades an Icelandic company modeled after the curvature of the legs of the cheetah.

At the Paralympics in 2004 in Athens, he won the 100, 200 and 400 meters. At the 400 tuneup in Rome, he roared from seventh to second in the final meters in a "B" race against seven Italian runners. In South Africa and elsewhere, he won the nickname "Blade Runner" and the plaudit "fastest man with no legs."

On a Sunday night in the middle of England, event organizers placed the 400 last on the docket to ensure utmost buildup, and a sparse crowd applauded Pistorius from beneath umbrellas.

Pistorius gave no thought to balking because of the weather that already had helped constrain the fastest man in the world this year, American Tyson Gay, to a 10.13 that won the 100 meters but disappointed the sprinter.

"Despite the elements being uncontrollable," Pistorius said, "my job's to run. ... I don't think I should run only the races that are good conditions."

With that, he headed for the changing room, pulled on a pair of green sweatpants, and went out to a white bus where he sat in the front row, waiting for departure.

Just 30 minutes earlier, he'd sat before the race in that waiting area, arms folded, then hands clasped behind his neck, then hopping up to lean on a railing to stretch his back, then seeming quite possibly to pray.

Then when the time came, about 8:40 p.m. England time, he'd slung a red bag over his shoulder, stood against a wall and filed out the door toward the rain with the other elite runners.

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