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Runner With Artificial Legs Sprints Past Barrier


And if there weren't enough excitement at the Olympics, another kind of record was made yesterday at the Olympic Stadium. A double amputee with artificial legs raced for the first time ever in the Olympics. South African Oscar Pistorious qualified for the semifinals tonight in the 400-meter sprint.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports from London.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The first heat of the Olympic 400 sounded like any other race.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From the inside...

BERKES: And after exploding out of the starting blocks, each runner pumped arms and legs hard. But in lane six, in a green and yellow jersey and shorts, Oscar Pistorius pounded the track with curved and flat carbon fiber blades for legs. Half-man, half stick figure, Pistorius kept pace with the leader and stayed ahead of the rest of the pack.


BERKES: For the first time ever, a runner with artificial legs ran against runners with biological legs in an Olympics. Pistorius was ecstatic afterward.

OSCAR PISTORIUS: You know, this experience I'm still taking in. I mean, every night again I can catch myself just cramping in my cheeks from smiling so much. And, you know, I've got a job to do tomorrow, so I've got to ice bath this afternoon and make sure my diet is good for tomorrow and get to bed early tonight, and just come out here tomorrow.

BERKES: Pistorius was born without fibulae and his legs were amputated below the knee when he was still a baby. His family was obsessed with sports so he played rugby, water polo, cricket and tennis, while also wrestling, boxing and competing in triathlons. But Pistorius running in the Olympics makes some uncomfortable. La Shawn Merritt has a 400-meter gold medal from the Beijing games. At an Olympic event in May, Merritt said he'd heard of an amputee who gained sudden speed by adding a couple of his inches to his legs.

LA SHAWN MERRITT: I didn't know how to take that, you know, because you're talking about technology. You know, and technology gets better every day. Anytime you talk about technology, you just don't know.

BERKES: Merritt later apologized to Pistorius for implying he might have an advantage. But his suspicions were actually studied in depth by a scientific team in 2008, when Pistorius was initially banned from the Olympics. Alena Grabowski of the University of Colorado was part of the research team.

ALENA GRABOWSKI: All the power's coming from Oscar. So, in a very simple sense, he's running on these springs. Those springs themselves because they're not able to deliver any power like a biological ankle would do, and they're not able to sense the ground like a biological ankle would do, it seems that those aren't giving him any sort of advantage.

BERKES: Grabowski and her colleagues also looked at metabolic response and found that Pistorius did not end up with more energy than other elite athletes. The studies prompted the Court of Arbitration for Sport to support Pistorius. If he meets qualifying times he must be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Some critics say Pistorius is different; he's not, in essence, competing against people just like him, so he shouldn't be allowed to compete. This is how Pistorius responds:

PISTORIUS: We run a distance. Yes, you use your body to get over that distance. So, even if I am different visually, I still have to use my muscles. I still have to train. I still have to prepare. I still have to sacrifice. I have to work extremely hard.

BERKES: Pistorius hopes to survive the 400 semifinals tonight, but most of the runners competing have better times. He's also scheduled to run in a relay for the South African team on Thursday. No other amputee has come close to qualifying, so at least for now, the barrier that fell at the Olympics, affects Oscar Pistorius alone. Howard Berkes, NPR News, London.


SPANDAU BALLET: (Singing) Gold. Always believe in, 'cause you are gold. And you got the power to know you're indestructible. Always believe in, 'cause you are gold. I'm glad that you're bound to return. There's something I could have learned. You're indestructible. Always believe in gold...

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.