The Fastest Man on No Legs (3/5)

Five’s acclaimed documentary strand continues with another remarkable tale of human experience. Oscar Pistorius, now 21, was born with a rare condition that meant both of his legs had to be amputated.

With the help of state-of- the-art artificial legs, he has become one of the fastest disabled runners in the world, capable of challenging able-bodied athletes. But the athletics authorities claim that his ‘blades’ give him an unfair advantage. This film follows Oscar over the course of a year as he fights for the right to compete at the highest level.

Eleven floors up, at the Institute of Biomechanics and Orthopaedics in the German Sports University in Cologne, Oscar Pistorius is watching as his legs are pressed in a mechanical vice. A graph appears on the screen next to the machine, recording the force required for each degree of flex. Pistorius yawns and wanders off to text his friends about his upcoming 21st birthday. He can do that; he has more than one pair of legs.

Oscar Pistorius was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 22, 1986, with a rare birth defect which meant he had no fibula in either leg. After consulting 12 different surgeons, his parents, Sheila and Henke, took the momentous decision to amputate both legs halfway between the knee and ankle. He was just 11 months old. Oscar grew up in a competitive family in a sports-mad country. His determination to keep up with his able-bodied friends meant that from an early age, he began to develop a leg action that would have far-reaching consequences. Oscar’s competitive streak led him to take up the national obsession, rugby; but when he received a serious knee injury following a tackle, he was persuaded to try a new sport –running.

Just eight months later, in 2004, Oscar stunned the world by winning the 200m at the Athens Paralympics – despite a false start that lost him nearly two seconds. The next year, he finished sixth in the able-bodied 400 metres at the South African National Championships. Then, in March 2007, he took second place in the same race and looked ready to break onto the world stage in able-bodied races. Oscar was now the fastest Paralympic athletic to have ever lived – and was set to challenge the fastest able-bodied runners in the world.

But Oscar’s seemingly unstoppable rise was brought to an abrupt halt in July 2007, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) collected evidence during his race against able-bodied runners in Italy. They suggested that he was running in a significantly different way to able-bodied athletes, pointing out that Oscar is the only 400-metre runner in history to run his second 200 metres faster than his first. After his way was initially blocked, Oscar was allowed to participate in his first international able-bodied events in Rome and Sheffield, and the IAAF agreed to pay for tests in Cologne to establish the blades’ legality.

In years to come, people will look back at these biomechanical tests as the blurring of what is meant by able-bodied and disabled. By then, Pistorius’s silhouette may well have become one of the most iconic images in sport. But will he be allowed to fulfil his dream of competing against able-bodied athletes on the international stage?

Wednesday 5th March at 9:00pm on five

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1