EXCLUSIVE: Walking on the wild side with blade runner Pistorius
23:02 GMT, 19 March 2012
The man sitting next to me on a luxurious, L-shaped cream sofa at his open-plan home in Pretoria, South Africa, is a sprinter. He is a man who has now met the qualifying ‘A’ standard to run in the 400 metres at the Olympic Games in London and will also go for four gold medals at the Paralympic Games.
But Oscar Pistorius is also a double amputee. He was born without a fibula, the bone that connects the knee to the ankle. This sprinter’s legs end just below his knees.
In the day-and-a-half Sportsmail photographer Andy Hooper and I spent with Pistorius in and around Pretoria, we tried to find out what makes this sprinter tick. What is the Blade Runner like away from the track
Walking on the wild side: Pistorius squares up to Anthony the cheetah
Pistorius now sits on a pile of logs at a game reserve near his home, gently stroking a nine-week-old white tiger called Orion. He is not the slightest bit nervous, yet shows the cub the utmost respect.
Pistorius is equally at ease with Anthony the cheetah, looking the animal in the eye as they crouch on a dirt track under the setting African sun.
They are both the fastest in their respective fields but Pistorius’s obvious discomfort with his running legs, known as cheetah blades, is startling compared to the regal, fluid way the animal glides around.
When Pistorius is not running he is constantly shifting his weight from left to right, trying desperately to avoid the abrasions that cause painful blistering and disrupt his training regime. ‘It’s an occupational hazard,’ he says, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Most sprinters get sores.’
He wanted a king cheetah of his own, but had to settle for two white tigers: a female called Vesta and a male, Valcan. He kept the cats, which cost around 30,000 each, at the game reserve and played with them every few days, until they got too big and he became too busy.
‘They were beautiful animals,’ he said. ‘They’ve got a couple of breeding programmes in South Africa for all types of big cats. It was more of a love for the animals than anything else, but I’m just not here enough to appreciate them.
‘I think everybody who grows up here has got some sort of love for animals and for nature. We grew up with a lot of animals at our house. We always had dogs, goats, guinea fowl and horses.’
It's a dog's life: Pistorius at his house in Pretoria with his dogs Enzo (right) and Silo (left)
Pistorius doesn’t really like riding horses, but he has had stakes in five race horses; animals he says he finds intriguing.
‘They’re just unbelievable animals,’ he says. ‘I’ve had about 20 wins between them over the last two-and-a-half years, but I’m more intrigued by the race horses.
‘They just love it. You see a race horse and it gets to the day before a race and you see how excited they get. It’s quite special.’
Pistorius has dogs, too – Enzo, a black-and-white bull terrier and Silo, a light-brown American pit bull. He explains Silo was a rescue dog, who was locked in a room only two metres by three metres until she was three-and-a-half months old. She had a broken back and is still nervous, even after Pistorius’s care and attention.
Enzo, however, is just mad. As he jumps around outside by the pool Pistorius elects to tell me: ‘The last journalist who came here, he ripped their toe nail off. There was blood everywhere.’ Somehow I don’t think he’s joking.
Pistorius drives his big black BMW through Pretoria’s leafy, well-heeled suburbs like a racing-car driver.
Beneath the over-sized sunglasses he smiles with satisfaction as he hears the engine momentarily eclipse the upbeat dance tunes when he pushes his foot to the floor. The good-looking, 25-year-old driver, a man recently voted South Africa’s best-dressed by GQ magazine, attracts admiring glances when we pause in the heavy commuter traffic.
Blade runner: Pistorius competes at the World Championships in Daegu last year
This car is still quick and impressive, but it is the safe option for Pistorius, designed to protect him in the event of a crash. An adrenaline junkie by nature, he insists he has given up ‘all that stuff’ to pursue his dream of competing at the Olympics.
The walls of his home are adorned with signed boxing memorabilia and a painting of James Dean, the rebel without a cause. Pistorius’s double garage is littered with kit – skis, snowboards, boxing gloves and bicycles – but they remain unused, for now at least.
He has sold 11 motorcycles –
‘superbikes, race bikes, I had loads of different bikes’ – over the past
two years to focus on this sport he fell into almost by accident, when a
knee injury stopped him playing rugby at boarding school and he began
athletics ‘as a form of rehabilitation’.
Training hard: Pistorius works on his strength in Pretoria
‘We grew up on bikes,’ he says. ‘There’s a picture of me wheeling a motorbike when I was about six years old. But sometimes you just have to realise that, although you don’t want to stop the things you enjoy for anything, you have to realise that there are priorities sometimes. There’s no point, when you’re working so hard for something, in inviting the possibility you could mess it up. Things could go wrong on a bike very quickly.
‘I used to race every second or third weekend. You crash pretty often. Even if you just twist a wrist or something it can affect your start, or your technique. It’s just not worth it.’
Pistorius also crashed his power boat into a submerged pier in 2008, breaking two ribs, his jaw and an eye socket, and had to have 172 stitches. ‘The boat’s gone, too,’ he adds, smiling and looking sheepish. ‘We don’t do that stuff any more. It was quite difficult to get that out of my system. I miss that quite a bit.
‘There will be a time for that in the
future but, right now, I would be quite upset if I got injured. There
must be other ways I can unwind. It’s a small sacrifice.’
He reads, paints, and plays ‘the odd
nine holes of golf’ instead, but you feel it has been very difficult,
letting go of the pursuit of going dizzyingly, dangerously fast.
Pistorius is still chasing that buzz in a
purer way, of course, just him, the track and the clock, but it is as
if he has had to learn to respect his body; realising that it might just
not be unbreakable after all.There
is something of an irony in this, but Pistorius, unfailingly polite and
courteous as he is, is a man who does not comprehend the concept of
The book Pistorius is reading is called The Just Defiance by Peter Harris, about the African National Congress’s campaign of violence during apartheid.
Pistorius grew up in a comfortable white family. He has a black live-in caretaker, Frankie, who keeps his home spotless, and trains with a Zimbabwe 400m runner, Talkmore Nyongani. He says he finds it fascinating looking back at his nation’s history and politics and discusses both animatedly and passionately.
‘My generation weren’t affected by apartheid so it’s very difficult for us to understand sometimes,’ he says. ‘We had dinner last night for my sister Aimee’s birthday. We sat at a table with 20 people and, without even noticing, she’s got a third black friends, a third Indian and a third white.
Political enthusiast: Pistorius is a keen reader
‘I find politics fascinating; a person’s reasoning behind things. Sometimes it might be that they’ve got the wrong actions, but the reason behind it is sometimes just. Sometimes the reasoning’s so flawed that it just brings out the worst in people.
‘We see things as black and white but there’s often a lot of grey in between. Whether it be right or wrong is a different story but it’s good to appreciate other people’s views. Sometimes people feel they have to make a stand but it becomes more about egos than anything else. They try to prove a point and end up doing even more damage.’
He could be talking about his own fight here, the successful battle for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to conclude his carbon-fibre blades do not give him an advantage on the athletics track. But in this case, it is his view that is very black and white.
‘At the end of the day there are tens of thousands of people using the same prosthetics I use and there’s no-one running the same times,’ he says, with defiance.
‘You’re always going to get people who have their opinions and offer their opinions but they can’t explain things like that.’
One of Pistorius’s first memories is hurtling down a hill on a go-kart with his brother, Carl, who then decided to use one of Oscar’s prostheses as an impromptu brake to stop them crashing.
Need for speed: Pistorius has always been a keen sportsman
‘My brother was like my hero when I was growing up,’ said Pistorius. ‘He’s a year and a bit older. We’re still very close. We stayed on a plot that was near an informal settlement, like a township, and we used to go and play football with the kids there and we used to have so much fun.
‘We would build tree houses in the holiday and we had motorbikes on a track in our garden. It’s nice to have someone who pushes you to do things. You’re always trying to compete with him.
Mother's pride: Pistorius speaks with the utmost respect for his late mother
‘Carl’s not very good with normal sports. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He does jet skis and white-river rafting and mountain-bike racing. He’s like an action freak.’
The boys’ mother, Sheila, was the sort of woman who would tell Carl to put his shoes on and Oscar to put his legs on and ‘that’s the last I want to hear of it’. She died on March 6, 2002 – a date Pistorius has tattooed on his arm – after being wrongly diagnosed with hepatitis. He almost whispers when he talks about his mum, such is the respect in his voice.
‘She was very special to us,’ says Pistorius. ‘She was very cool; a very hectic, free spirit. She didn’t really comply with much and had a very carefree approach to life.
‘She didn’t take anything too seriously. She wrote us hundreds of letters and taught us hundreds of things and never made decisions for us. Those are the important lessons, when you try to do things sometimes and you don’t succeed and you give up, and you never really know what the potential could have been if you had stayed dedicated to something.’
The most dramatic difference between the
Pistorius who just missed out on qualifying for the 2008 Olympics and
the athlete who has already beaten the 45.30-second ‘A’ standard for
London 2012 is his weight.
He used to look like a rugby player; now
the Pistorius you will see at the BT Paralympic World Cup in
Manchester on May 22, at the Paralympic Games in London and – if he can
match the qualifying time at an international event – at the Olympic
Games, looks more like a middle-distance runner.
Pistorius explains he has shed 17 kilograms over the past two-and-a-half years. His message is simple, brutal even. ‘If you’ve got extra weight you’ve got to justify it,’ he says. ‘If it’s not adding to the power-to-weight ratio, it has to go.
‘You sometimes find sprinters fighting themselves when they’re running. They’re using a lot of aggression that’s not getting transferred on to the track. It’s a waste of energy, really.’
Pistorius is not a big believer in wasting energy. He admits he didn’t realise this when he was younger, but it’s why the fast cars, motorbikes and white tigers have gone, allowing him to concentrate on Oscar the athlete.
As the tattoo on his left shoulder states: ‘I do not run like a man running aimlessly.’