Daegu (South Korea): The double-amputee sprinter known as the "Blade Runner" is steadily stealing Usain Bolt`s stage at the world championships.
Bounding along on his carbon-fibre blades, Oscar Pistorius is proving he indeed belongs on the same track at major meets as able-bodied athletes.
On Sunday, in his opening heat of the 400 meters, the South African finished third in 45.39 seconds to advance to the following day`s semifinals.
While Bolt clearly remains the face of track, the 24-year-old Pistorius is demonstrating there`s room for more. He has never before competed for a major title, and may not even make it to Tuesday`s final, but his story remains an inspiration to many.
Not to mention a contentious topic for others, who think the blades give Pistorius an unfair advantage.
For Pistorius, this was simply a chance to compete against the best. He fought off nerves and tracked Femi Ogunode of Qatar down the back stretch with an impressive burst.
"A big sense of relief," Pistorius said. "This is a platform where you work extremely hard to get here. Once you get here, you don`t want to let it slide."
It`s been quite a path to reach this point for Pistorius.
The International Association of Athletics Federations had banned the multi-Paralympic gold medalist from able-bodied competitions, saying the blades he wears gave him an edge.
In 2008, Pistorius was cleared to compete by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. However, he failed to qualify for that year`s Beijing Olympics and then again for the 2009 worlds in Berlin.
Stronger, leaner and more confident, this has been a breakout season for Pistorius. In one of his last races before Daegu, he earned the "A`` standard with his best-ever time of 45.07 to earn a place at the worlds.
"Phenomenal race," Pistorius remembered. "Never had a race where every aspect went extremely well."
A place in the final may require an even better performance. After all, defending champion LaShawn Merritt hardly looked like he broke a sweat as he cruised to a 44.35 in his heat, the fastest time in 2011.
Pistorius` blades have been the source of curiosity and controversy, with some wondering if the technology actually aids the runner. Merritt tried to diffuse that notion.
"I`m not really sure what`s going on with the technology," said Merritt, the Olympic gold medalist who competed in just his second race since returning from a 21-month doping ban. "I haven`t seen a story on it or went that deep into what the technology is. I just see his times, and that he`s slowly getting better. So I can tell he`s been working."
Belgian semifinalist Jonathan Borlee said the IAAF could be left in an awkward position should Pistorius make it into the final.
"In that case I think, yeah, it will be a problem for IAAF, for (the) federation who will say, `Oh it`s not fair,`" Borlee said.
Others competitors use the presence of Pistorius as a challenge, not wanting to get beat by him. Chris Brown of the Bahamas powered down the home stretch to win the heat involving Pistorius.
"With him being inside the race, automatically everybody steps up," Brown said. "No one wants to get beat by him. Me definitely, I don`t want to get beat him."
Pistorius was born without fibulas, and had both legs amputated just below the knee when he was only 11 months old. He uses prosthetic blades made of the carbon-fiber material to compete, leading to his nickname and constant questions.
Pistorius` manager, Peet Van Zyl, dismisses such assertions that it provides him a benefit.
"We`re going to focus on running," Van Zyl said. "That`s it, that`s our focus."
Some believe the blades could present a danger if they hit someone. So despite allowing him to compete, the IAAF said it made an agreement with the South African federation that Pistorius would only be allowed to run the leadoff leg of the 4x400 relay, which is still in lanes before the event turns into a pack race.
"I think that`s a good decision" Borlee said. "For security, I think it`s much better to have him in the first leg because, you know, if you get hit by his blades we can have serious injuries."
With the qualifying standards for the 2012 London Games expected to be similar, Pistorius could very well become the first amputee sprinter in track and field at the Olympics.
That would truly make him a trailblazer, and the mention of that made him almost squirm.
"There are Paralympic athletes that do exactly what I do every day, train just as hard," Pistorius said. "I`m very proud to be part of that movement. The Paralympics have taught me a lot.
"I really don`t feel like a pioneer, but I`m very honored to be in the position I`m in."
First Published: Sunday, August 28, 2011, 17:11