Sanchez: Oscar Pistorius redefines what it means to be 'able'
Learn the name. You'll know his unique stride soon.
Oscar Pistorius will be a man to watch at the London's Summer 2012 Olympics.
He's a South African runner who will challenge your view of what is means to be "disabled."
A double-amputee, Pistorius runs on carbon-fiber blades called Cheetahs. He'll compete in the 400 meters and as part of his country's 4x400 meter relay. It's a fitting end to his lengthy fight to participate, having first been banned from international competition with able-bodied runners.
The debate around Pistorius flips how most people view disability. With him, the fear is that it gives him an unfair advantage. The blades give Pistorius added bounce, the argument goes, allowing him to use less oxygen and calories, and he has no lower leg portions to tire. Others, including scientific teams who have examined his movements, disagree. They also point out the many disadvantages he must overcome.
In any case, Pistorius is a refreshing antidote to the scandals that normally surround "fairness" in sports. Athletes accused of cheating are usually trying to hide their unfair advantage. The game is to figure out what sort of concoctions they have swallowed or injected to boost their speed, strength or endurance.
Pistorius attaches his difference on his body for all to see.
To watch Pistorius, or any similarly prosthetic-fitted athlete run, shrinks condescending attitudes, the pity given to people who are without a limb. And in these times, that's a necessary shift.
Hugh Herr, the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaks eloquently about Pistorius, drawing the broader social argument about stretching long-standing ideas of beauty, strength and sex appeal.
Herr, in a New York Times interview, said, "When society sees Oscar winning against that perfect athletic form that they've been told of, there's a confusion in the brain that immediately goes: 'He can't be a great athlete. It has to be the artificial legs.' "
Not to downplay the struggles amputees face, but Pistorius stretches the idea of what is possible physically for those missing limbs from birth, or who lost them from illness, accidents or war injuries.
He was born without fibulas. That's a bone between the knee and the ankle joints. By the time he reached 11 months, doctors had amputated both limbs.
That was no bar to his athletic ambitions. He competed, often alongside other able-bodied children, in cricket, water polo, rugby, wrestling and tennis. Pistorius, now 25 years old, took up running at 16.
As technology advances, it is feasible, even expected, that some amputees will gain firm advantages in some sports.
But the 2012 Olympics will be for Pistorius, although he's not expected to win a medal.
There is a certain sort of revered athlete who contributes more than just his or her performance on the track or playing field. Their exceptional athletic achievement is what attracts notice, but their significance transcends physical performance.
By showing up to compete at the London Olympics, Pistorius will be making a powerful contribution. By the way, expect commentary from him. He is outspoken about being a paralympic athlete, especially about the trials he underwent after initially being banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Here is a quote on his website: "You're not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have."
His remarkable running challenges notions of what is possible. Even the terms "disabled" and "able-bodied" lose their usual distinctions.
There is something wonderfully full circle about that fact.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.