Oscar Pistorius of South Africa leaves the starting blocks on the way to… (Olivier Morin / AFP/Getty…)
LONDON — Oscar Pistorius of South Africa made history, LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. made an early exit, and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt made his first competitive appearance Saturday morning in track and field.
Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to compete in the Olympics when he lined up for a first-round heat in the men's 400 meters at Olympic Stadium, where the crowd saluted him with roars of encouragement. He was second in his heat in 45.46 seconds, a season-best time, and advanced to Sunday’s semifinals.
Merritt, the defending Olympic 400-meter champion, was unable to finish his heat. He pulled up lame about halfway into the race after feeling discomfort in his left hamstring, which he said he injured in his last pre-Olympic compeittion, at Monaco. He said afterward that he would withdraw from the 4 x 400-meter relay pool if he still feels the injury.
PHOTOS: London 2012 Olympic Games
Bolt, who carried the Jamaican flag into the stadium during the Games’ opening ceremony, won his 100 meters heat in 10.09 seconds and advanced to Sunday’s semifinals. The fastest qualifying time was by Ryan Bailey of Long Beach, who tied a personal best with a 9.88. “Stupid, crazy fast,” said compatriot Justin Gatlin, who was timed in 9.97 seconds. Tyson Gay of the U.S. (10.08) also advanced.
Most eyes were on Bolt, who cruised through the last part of the race. “I’m running well. I’m happy. Training is great,” said Bolt, the Beijing Olympic champion in the 100 and 200. “I’m looking forward to the semifinals.”
Jamaica's Yohan Blake, who won the world title in the 100 last year after Bolt was disqualified for a false start, won his heat in 10.0 seconds Saturday.
The other two Americans in the 400, Bryshon Nellum of USC and Tony McQuay, advanced to the semifinals, Nellum in 45.29 seconds, and McQuay in 45.48. “It was like a dream come true,” Nellum said of competing in the lively stadium. “It’s one of the best crowds I ever ran in. They keep me going. I’m having fun.”
The fastest qualifying time was the 44.43 recorded by Jonathan Borlee of Belgium in a national-record performance. Borlee’s twin, Kevin, also advanced with a time of 45.14. World champion Kirani James of Grenada won his heat in 45.23 seconds.
Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee before his first birthday as the result of a congenital condition, apologized for taking a long time to reach the media interview area. But remember this: While most athletes change their shoes after they compete, he has to change his legs from the carbon-fiber “Blade Runner” legs he uses on the track to the more conventional legs he otherwise uses.
“It was just an unbelievable experience,” the 25-year-old said. “I found myself smiling at the start of the race, which is rare.”
He said that he didn’t merely want to show up but wanted to have an impact. “My goal was to make the semifinals and that was going to be a tough goal for me,” he said. “My recuperation is going to be very important.”
He also said that although one type of pressure was lifted from his shoulders when he was chosen for South Africa’s squad, he felt another burden. “I made the team and then said, ‘Now I need to perform.' ”
His rivals applauded his efforts. Among them was James, a supporter of Pistorius’ fight to compete in the Games.
“First of all, he created history. I have a lot of respect for the guy,” James said. “He’s a very great person, most important. If he wants to compete with us, it is what it is. He’s just has a lot of love for track and field and he adds another element to our sport which will generate a lot of interest in our sport.”
James also said Pistorius had inspired him “because it takes a lot of courage and a lot of confidence in what he does.”
Nellum also said he drew inspiration from Pistorius. That’s saying something, since Nellum has overcome his own physical challenge: He was shot in the legs three times after he left a party near the USC campus on Oct. 31, 2008, and had to endure three operations to repair the damage.
“It’s just amazing what he’s doing now. I wish him the best. He motivates all of us,” Nellum said. “Something like that happens, you lose both your legs, some people would give up. For him to continue to run with people with legs, it’s unbelievable. It’s amazing.
“It is a good thing that he’s out here and he’s able to compete.”
Merritt, his chance for a repeat gold in the 400 denied, said he hoped to push through the pain in his leg and contend here but the injury prevailed. “I had a plan but it wasn’t to be,” he said.
Michael Phelps wins another gold in 100-meter butterfly
Phil Rogers and Todd Dalhausser upset in men's beach volleyball
Missy Franklin sets world record, wins gold medal in 200-meter backstroke