cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Praise for Blade Runner

Title Page

Introduction

1. Fingerprints

2. Made to Measure

3. The Princess and the Pugilist

4. Carpe Diem

5. The Coldest Summer

6. The First Time

7. One of a Kind? Normal versus Special

8. Golden Boy

9. Swimming Against the Tide

10. The Finishing Line

11. Beijing

12. The Road to London

Letter One: Carl Pistorius to Oscar Pistorius, Pretoria, 4 May 2008

Letter Two: Henk Pistorius to Oscar Pistorius, Cape Town, 6 June 2008

Picture Section

Picture Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Book

On discovering that their son had been born with no fibulae, Oscar’s parents made the difficult decision to have both his legs amputated, giving him the best possible chance of a normal life. His mother wrote him a letter: ‘A loser is not one who runs last in the race. It is the one who sits and watches, and has never tried to run.’

Throughout his life Oscar has battled to overcome extraordinary difficulties to prove that, with the right attitude, anything is possible. Running on prosthetic legs, he is now a world-renowned athlete, known as ‘the fastest man on no legs’. Oscar won three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, breaking a Paralympic record for the 200m and a world record for the 400m. Now he faces his ultimate fight: to fulfil his dream of competing at the 2012 Olympics.

About the Author

Oscar Pistorius was born in 1986 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Known as the ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘the fastest man on no legs’, Pistorius is the double-amputee world-record holder in the 100m, 200m and 400m events, and runs with the aid of Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs.

Praise for Blade Runner

‘This is a tale that needs to be told, a tale of love, death and massive determination, and of a life formed by the strangest of circumstances.’

Daily Mail

‘Already a bestseller in South Africa, where it’s into its fourth printing, [Pistorius’s] book has been translated into 22 languages and will no doubt have Hollywood beating a path to his door to film his inspirational story because he’s a walking, sprinting miracle – in full flight.’

The Scotsman

‘Oscar Pistorius, author of Blade Runner, exemplifies the runner as an unlikely achiever. He was born without fibula bones, and as a baby had both his legs amputated. But he became a winner nonetheless . . . Pistorius has become a symbol of achievement, or as he puts it, “a superhero for disabled people worldwide.” Blade Runner is an extraordinary story.’

Financial Times

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Introduction

Pretoria, June 2008

 

‘THE REAL LOSER is never the person who crosses the finishing line last. The real loser is the person who sits on the side, the person who does not even try to compete.’ My mother wrote these words to me in a letter when I was still a small baby, about five months before my surgeons performed my bilateral amputation. She kept the letter for me to read as an adult.

I have always wanted to participate and compete. I wanted to run, to swim, to play cricket and rugby, to drive a car and, of course, a motorbike. I have always wanted to live life normally. To tell you the truth, I don’t think of myself as disabled. I have limits, but we all have limits and like anyone else I also have many talents.

This attitude is integral to how my family approaches life and their philosophy has made me the man I am today: ‘This is Oscar Pistorius, exactly as he should be. Perfect in himself.’

My brother, my sister and I were brought up with one iron rule – no one was allowed to say: ‘I can’t.’

Perhaps this is what has made my life so special. Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak with many people (and I have also read their letters and messages to me), and I have come to understand how my example can be an inspiration to those who, like me, have experienced and struggled with a physical problem, but who don’t want to give up and settle for second best. This can also be true for others who have had to overcome obstacles of a different nature in their lives.

It is for this reason that I have decided to tell my story: the story of a young boy surrounded by love, support and the courage of his family; of a young man who experienced the most profound grief with the loss of his adored mother and of a man who is chasing his dream – a dream to become an athlete. Not a disabled athlete, simply an athlete.

Oscar

Chapter 1

Fingerprints

 

MY NAME IS Oscar Carl Lennard Pistorius. I was born to Sheila and Henk Pistorius on 22 November 1986 at the Sandton Clinic in Johannesburg. According to my parents I was a beautiful baby, weighing in at a healthy 3 kilos and 300 grams, but unbeknownst to them, I had been born with an important bone missing in each leg: the fibula. Along with the tibia, this bone extends from the ankle to the knee and supports the full weight of the body. In addition my feet were malformed: they were lacking in the outer part. Simply put, each foot had only two toes – the big toe and the index – the inner bones and the heel. None of the medical staff present at my birth noted the malformation of my little feet; it was my father who first noticed their difference, and so it was that my parents began asking the first in a long series of questions. It was clear in their minds that they would do whatever it was going to take to find a solution.

Fortunately for me, I have never needed to press those around me for answers: right from the start everything was out in the open, and countless times I have heard the story of the trips my parents made to various medical luminaries to ask their advice in the months following my birth. My parents have never been shy or embarrassed to discuss my situation, both with me and in front of me, as well as my siblings, or for that matter with the many friends and acquaintances who made their way to our house for different reasons and inevitably asked for updates on my medical situation. My parents took the time to answer the questions clearly and simply, explaining what they knew, why they had set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to consult the best doctors in the field and why they sought second or third (often totally different) opinions on my case. Each step along the road gave them greater knowledge, both of the physical problem and what my options would be. No one was able to discourage them. I have a profound respect for them because it cannot have been easy, but then again the Pistoriuses are a stubborn people.

The confusion must have been particularly difficult for my parents because my situation was not straightforward: my condition was both complicated and rare. With the malformation of my lower legs at birth, the fact that I would never walk and that I would be wheelchair-reliant seemed to many a foregone conclusion. My parents saw things differently, and so they began to research all the alternatives that would allow me to lead the most ‘normal’ life possible. By the time they came to a decision they had met with eleven amputation specialists and worked their way through a barrage of ideas.

At the end of every consultation, my father would ask the surgeon one question: ‘If it was your child, and you were unable to operate yourself, who would you turn to?’ In this way, my parents were able to tap into a network of extraordinary surgeons and trusted hands; although this was not absolute protection from charlatans, it was more effective than you might initially expect.

Over time my father developed quite an expertise on the subject: he had read and researched the condition extensively and listened attentively to the explanations given by the various experts, so that when he found himself in front of a surgeon who recommended what was in his opinion too drastic an amputation (i.e. above the knee as opposed to below the knee, which made no sense given that the joint was perfectly fine) he steadfastly refused to pay the bill. This is an excellent example of the Pistorius attitude to life; my father could not forgive the doctor the flippancy with which he had given his advice. In his view it was professionally irresponsible. The surgeon must have understood the error of his ways because when my father replied to his bill with a bill of his own itemising his own expenses, we never heard from him again.

Throughout that consultation period my parents kept an archive, which contains all the medical opinions and documents relating to my condition. They were totally preoccupied by what and who I would become and also how, as an adult, I would feel about their decision. They wanted to make sure that if, when I looked back and reflected on their choices, I was unhappy with the turns my life had taken, I would be able to go back and understand the rationale behind their decision. They had to take decisions on my behalf, but the wide-ranging views of the various doctors they had consulted made them doubly conscious of the gravity of their choice. I can only imagine how hard that decision must have been for them, and how heavily the enormity of that responsibility must have weighed.

Certain doctors proposed to amputate the right foot only and attempt reconstructive surgery on the left, as it was slightly less malformed. After a worldwide search my parents decided to approach the three doctors whom they had found to be the best and ask them to join forces and discuss my case. As luck would have it, one of these three doctors, Gerry Versveld, was South African. Should my parents decide to go ahead and agree to the procedure he would be the surgeon chosen to perform the operation.

Gerry was convinced that if my parents were prepared to make a bold and courageous decision and amputate both my legs below the knee while I was still sufficiently young, I would learn to walk with prostheses and would encounter fewer problems. Basically, if the double amputation was performed before I learnt to walk, I would never know what it was like to walk on my own feet and so would not suffer from the trauma of having lost them. Gerry also told my parents that he had already successfully performed this type of operation and that the results were very good. In addition, he had presented my case for discussion at an important American international amputation congress in which the top specialists worldwide were participating, in order to garner further information and generate more opinions on the case: he had encountered unanimous support for the option of a bilateral amputation.

What proved decisive for my parents was when they asked to meet a couple of young children who had already undergone the operation, in order to see how they walked and to gain an idea of what they could expect for my future. They were amazed as they arrived at the Prosthetics Centre in Pretoria when they realised that the young man they had been watching run around the garden a few minutes earlier was the same young man who was waiting to meet them. They had never imagined that anyone who had undergone a bilateral amputation could be so agile and were terribly impressed by the young man’s quiet confidence as he calmly told them his story.

Mirroring what certain doctors had suggested in my case, this boy, who was twelve at the time of the meeting, had undergone various reconstructive surgeries as a baby. Somehow, and with considerable effort on his part, he had learnt to walk, but it was not easy, and he moved with such awkwardness and lack of coordination that his first two years at school were nightmarish as the children continually mocked him. The youngsters teased and excluded him from their games because he was different and they assumed his lopsided gait meant that he was mentally deficient. He was a lonely and sad child. Then his parents met Gerry Versveld, and together they decided to abandon the project of reconstructive surgery and moved to amputate both legs. After the operation, and with prostheses, he learnt to walk easily and even play sport. His family decided to change schools and give him a fresh start as an ‘ordinary child’, and he was now very happy and felt he and his parents had made the right decision.

Meeting this young man made all the difference for my parents. There before them was an adolescent who was happy, healthy, sporty and independent, a perfect example of what my parents hoped I could become in the future. His opportunities and freedoms were exactly what they dreamed of for me.

And so, months after that initial round-table discussion, the decision was taken to undergo the amputation. When I was eleven months old Dr Gerry Versveld went ahead and operated. He is a wonderful human being and a true gentleman; over the last twenty years he has become a dear friend to both my family and me. We have a very special relationship: Gerry has played a vital role in my life, both as a physician and as a friend, and I was simply delighted when he travelled to support me during the Paralympics in Athens in 2004.

One of my father’s favourite stories from this period in our lives concerns the day of my operation. He was out of town on business and in the midst of an important meeting when the tension proved too much. He stood up, excused himself, and explained that he needed to leave as his son was undergoing a bilateral amputation. He took the next available flight but only arrived at the hospital that evening, long after the operation was over. As he stepped into the ward he heard me wailing in agony. He asked the nurses if I had been given enough or the correct dose of pain-relief medication, and as none of the nurses seemed capable of answering his question, with typical Pistorius grit he managed to get his hands on my medical folder. He discovered to his horror that as the nurses had been unable to find the correct pain-relief medication they had given me a much milder analgesic. He immediately phoned Gerry, who rushed to the hospital still in his pyjamas and kicked up a storm; from then on I was treated like a little prince.

Just over six months later, at only seventeen months old, I received my first pair of prosthetic legs. Constructed of plaster and mesh, with a lycra ‘skin’ that was even fleshcoloured, they were made to measure for me and surprisingly comfortable. I loved them; from that day onwards I became invincible, a wild child. It became my raison d’être to find the highest and most unlikely places to climb, succeed and then start all over again. My energy was boundless, and I saw no reason why my new legs would not be able to take me everywhere I needed or wanted to go.

I believe that it was at this time in my life that my personality was shaped, and that my family was instrumental in laying the foundation stones of my competitive nature and of the man that I am today. Carl, my brother, was eighteen months old when I was born, and it was clear from the start that I would follow him wherever he led me, and certainly into any mischievous adventure. He would push me to my limit and then beyond; we were just like Buzz and Woody in Toy Story.

Wherever Carl went, I was by his side, and our parents, instead of stopping me or slowing us down – after all, I was a child that people labelled ‘disabled’ – pushed me forward, encouraging me to try everything, especially every type of physical activity. With hindsight, I have begun to appreciate just how difficult it must have been for them to give me all that freedom, fighting their natural instincts to shield me from potential harm. In allowing me that freedom my parents taught me to be independent, to defend myself and to take care of myself whatever the circumstances, however daunting the challenge.

By the age of two I was a real menace, with blond shoulder-length curls and a short fringe (I am still mortified today when I see pictures of myself and the mullet). It was around this time that I received my first pair of legs with the wooden foot part covered in rubber. In the 1980s Nike had not yet started producing Nike Total 90s for babies, but I loved my little shoes with Mickey Mouse emblazoned on their toes. They were extremely cool and allowed me to start putting distance between the more traditional trainers – known in South Africa as ‘takkies’ – and myself.

At around three years of age I began fully to understand that my feet were different. I had no interest in whether they were better or worse than other feet, just that they were different. Every morning while Carl put on his shoes, I would slip on my prostheses; it was all the same to me. I had two pairs of shoes: my Mickey Mouse pair was for everyday use and another smarter version for my Sunday best and parties. If for some reason I missed church on Sunday I could wear the same pair of shoes for two weeks solid. I realise that it may strike the reader as odd, but the thought that I could wear the same shoes for a hundred days in a row and they would still smell new tickles me silly even now. I consider it one of the advantages of not having any feet.

In February 1989, Aimée our sister was born. My mother used to tell me that during her pregnancy Carl and I never left her side, always wanting to stroke her tummy. We would squabble endlessly, saying, ‘She is my sister!’, ‘No, she is MY sister!’ From birth I was spellbound by her feet and kept kissing them. As a small child I was unable to pronounce her name and so I called her ‘Gugu’. She would be asleep in her cradle and I would bound up, welcoming her with a ‘Helloo Gugu’ or by humming her a tune. Inevitably I would wake her, which would then set her off crying, so my parents took to hiding her in places I could not disturb her. I don’t remember much more from those days – I was too little – but clearly we have always been a tight-knit family.

Then came the dogs. Each of us had one and, what’s more, we had been allowed the dog of our choice. Carl chose a Doberman, Aimée a basset-hound and I selected an American pit bull called Vivian who, despite the stereotype, was not at all aggressive. If the truth were told Vivian was entirely useless and rather dim and she just slept all day long. Vivian also snored, very loudly. Once my father recorded her while she was sleeping and then went to my mother and played it to her, tricking her into thinking she was listening to herself. Our mother fell for the ploy hook, line and sinker. She was so embarrassed that she went out and acquired the latest ‘cure all’ medicines. The entire family played along and I don’t think we ever told her that it was a joke. What my father never knew was that my mother had bought the incredibly expensive magical anti-snore cushion on his credit card (it cost well over £400 in today’s currency). Unfortunately, after a while, Vivian’s personality changed and we caught her attacking one of the tortoises we had in the garden. My dad became increasingly concerned that Vivian might do us children some harm, and eventually took her to a veterinary practice. We never saw her again.

Every year, during the December holidays, my family decamped to our holiday home in Plettenberg Bay; the car journey was epic in length. My recollections of those interminable journeys are bittersweet, because my father, in true hard-headed family style, made it a question of pride to complete the entire 1,200 kilometres in one stretch. To make matters worse I suffered terribly from carsickness, and so the kilometres passed in a queasy blur. One can be sure that the lunch boxes or padkos that my father prepared for each of us – which contained delicacies like banana milk and fish paste rolls, his favourite foods – did little to ease my nausea.

About 300 kilometres before Plettenberg Bay the monotony of the trip lifted somewhat; this was where my father took his short cut. It was really just a single dust road that passed between two rather steep hills but, being about 80 kilometres long, it doubled wonderfully as our annual rally track.

By the time the rally was over we knew that we were about to see the ocean. The first person that spotted it won the largest remaining slab of chocolate. Aimée was still very little when she became our reigning champion spotter. In truth, Aimée would shout ‘I see the ocean!’ at every corner, and even though Carl and I protested that there was nothing yet to see, our father would proclaim her the champion and hand over the chocolate. Whether this was due to her hawk-like eyesight or simply because she was always well behaved and obedient was open to question – what is certain, however, is that she was the apple of her daddy’s eye.

The rest of the family were encouraged to take a particular attitude to Aimée. Our father always instructed us to treat her like a ‘lady’. When we were all in the car together we had to open the door for her; she would sit up front with Dad and we boys would sit in the back. She was spoilt rotten. Whenever we argued our father would immediately ask us, ‘Did you treat her like a lady?’ and we boys (with the logic peculiar to seven- or eight-year-old children) were easily taken with the allure of behaving like ‘gentlemen’. There were inevitable lapses. On one occasion I remember pushing Aimée; she went straight to our father in tears, but I justified my actions by explaining that her behaviour had not been at all lady-like.

I remember vividly one holiday in Plettenberg Bay. I was racing up and down the beach when two slightly older children approached me. When they asked why my feet only left holes in the sand instead of footprints, I simply explained that those holes were my footprints! ‘Ahh . . .’ they exclaimed, and then began running behind me on their heels trying to leave the same type of footprint. I have never forgotten that day. Although I did not yet have the maturity to grasp the concept in such clear terms, it was the day on which I understood that people see you exactly as you see yourself, and I was relaxed and confident.

As well as our annual trip to the bay, we were in the habit of going away at weekends. We particularly liked going hiking for two or three days, sometimes walking up to 20 kilometres a day, and on these occasions the same rules were applicable to each of us. We each carried a rucksack on our back and were allowed to choose both the type and quantity of food and drink for our bag, on the understanding that my parents, who were very strict about us carrying whatever we brought, would oblige us to sit down and eat if the bag became too heavy. The only person they fussed over was Aimée, making sure that she could keep up with us and did not tire. I was never a concern: if anything their difficulty with me was quite the opposite, since I loved hiking and would often set off ahead, leaving them behind, then drop my rucksack at our next appointed resting spot and run back to meet them. I loved running.

Among the happiest recollections of those idyllic holidays – memories which have remained with me ever since – were the special moments we shared in the car. I was always delighted when my father raced his car: I was born with a fully developed passion for both cars and motorbikes. I can’t say for sure, naturally, but it wouldn’t surprise me if my first word was ‘car’ . . .

When I was about three years old my mother drove a red Ford Laser. I thought that it was the coolest car on four wheels. Even at that age I crowed with pride and boasted to all and sundry. My mother’s best friend, Gill, clearly remembers me telling people that my mother drove what I called a ‘ford lather – WOW!’

But it was my father who really inspired my love of cars. When I was a boy he drove a dark-red two-door Mercedes sports car with leather interior. I just adored driving around with him with the sunroof open. As soon as he stopped at the traffic lights I would jump on the seats in my best effort to stick my head out through the sunroof and imitate, at least as far as I was concerned, film stars touring Hollywood in their limousines. This was the highlight of my week. My father travelled a lot on business so it was also a special occasion to spend some time with him.

When I was four, Dad bought Carl and me a little blue 60cc off-road vehicle. There was no holding us back. Any downhill incline was fair game, the steeper the better. I was in love; I am certain that had it been possible I would have parked it next to my bed each evening and slept alongside it. Over the next three years Carl and I became little adrenalin junkies, haring around in our beloved car.

Then came a serious and sudden blow. I was seven years old when my parents announced they were getting divorced and we had to sell our home. We stayed with our mother and moved into a smaller house nearer town and so our freewheeling adventures had to come to an end. My mother tried to make sure that we had a couple of outings a month where we could have free rein behind our steering wheel, but it was never quite the same.

Chapter 2

Made to Measure