One of the best stories of the London Olympics was Oscar Pistorius running for South Africa on his prosthetic legs. His fight to make the Olympic team brought new attention to sports for people with disabilities. And the attention also brought new competitors — who now are vying with Pistorius to claim the title of world's fastest amputee.
Now Pistorius is back in London for the Paralympics, and it's been a rocky start for the 25-year-old. In his first race, the 200 meters, Pistorius held a comfortable lead until 20-year-old Brazilian Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira emerged from the pack to win the race. The crowd, which had been wildly cheering for fan-favorite Pistorius, was stunned into silence.
It's worth checking out the video from the International Paralympic Committee, just to see Oliveira zoom ahead, looking like the Road Runner passing Wile E. Coyote. You can also hear the surprised TV announcers.
After the race, Pistorius complained that Oliveira had an unfair advantage because the height of his new prosthetic running blades added to his stride. There was irony in this, because international sports authorities have debated whether Pistorius' own prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage over nondisabled runners.
Officials for the International Paralympic Committee said Oliveira's blades were within regulations, but they said they would review the rules that determine the length of the prosthetics.
Tomorrow, Pistorius will get a chance at redemption. He's expected to run for the gold medal in the 100-meter sprint. Traditionally, the winner of this race can claim the title of world's fastest amputee.
Pistorius has won the 100-meter sprint in the past; he shares the world record for a double amputee. But he narrowly lost his last international competition in the event, at the 2011 World Games in New Zealand. It was Pistorius' first loss in seven years. The winner was American single amputee Jerome Singleton, in a photo finish.
Singleton, who had been a runner-up to Pistorius in the past, thinks of the South African as a role model who won attention for his sport. But Singleton, 26, also relishes their rivalry.
"Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier. Magic Johnson had Larry Bird," he says. "So Oscar Pistorius has Jerome Singleton."
There's a lot more competition, too. These guys have great names: there's Singleton, the single amputee, and Blake Leeper, the American double amputee who runs on two bouncy prosthetic legs. Leeper shares, with Pistorius, the fastest time for a double amputee in the 100-meter sprint.
Leeper, 22, didn't know about the world track competitions until he saw a news story three years ago about Pistorius.
And then there's Jonnie Peacock of Great Britain, who set a new world record in the 100 meters back in July. And, of course, there's the now known Brazilian, Oliveira.
All of them have a chance to beat Pistorius. Or, the winner could be another unheralded runner who stuns the crowd to silence.
"It's such a quick race. It's at a point where anybody can win," says Leeper. "I think that's why everybody likes the 100-meter race. It's hard to dominate the 100 meters."
In world competitions, double and single amputees run together. And that leads to a friendly controversy over who's got the advantage: a runner with one prosthetic leg or two.
Singleton — who has degrees from Morehouse College and the University of Michigan in applied physics and industrial engineering — explains that single-leg amputees like him generate more force out of the blocks. But when the double amputees "get up tall and start running, they're blessed to be symmetrical," he says, and they can "have a smoother gait and be in control a little better."
So that's one prediction: The single-leg amputees start faster out of the blocks. But watch out for the double amputees, who may have better balance, and a faster finish.
Joseph Shapiro is a correspondent with NPR News Investigations. He recently wrote about Tatyana McFadden, an American athlete competing at the Paralympic Games. He reports frequently on people with disabilities.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. One of the most compelling stories of the recent Olympics came from Oscar Pistorius, a South African runner with two prosthetic legs. Pistorius is also running in the ongoing Paralympics - the follow-up games for athletes with disabilities. During the recent 200-meter race, a London crowd watched stunned as a Brazilian runner edged Pistorius at the finish line. Here's the call on Paralympics TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here goes Pistorius. Look at him go. Oscar Pistorius absolutely storming away. Oscar Pistorius, is he going to get, is he going? He's been caught, has he? Oscar Pistorius just tying up. Oh my goodness, he's been caught by Oliveira of Brazil. Well, that's absolutely extraordinary.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Oscar Pistorius gets a chance at redemption in the men's 100-meter sprint. The winner traditionally gets bragging rights to the title of world's fastest amputee. But NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, Pistorius will again face some strong competition.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There's an American runner who'd like to introduce himself to you.
JEROME SINGLETON JR.: My name's Jerome Singleton, Jr. I'm the fastest amputee in the world.
SHAPIRO: Singleton can say that because after years of narrow losses to Oscar Pistorius, he defeated him at the world championship games last year. But, just barely. That race was so close, the judges had to spend several minutes studying pictures from the photo finish. Now meet another American runner, Blake Leeper. He'd never heard of the Paralympics until he saw a news story three years ago about Pistorius. Now, he and Pistorius share the world record for a double amputee in the 100 meters.
BLAKE LEEPER: It's such a quick race that it's to the point, anybody can win. That's why everybody likes the 100-meter race. It's hard to dominate 100 meters.
SHAPIRO: These guys have great names. Blake Leeper, the double amputee on two bouncy prosthetic legs. Jerome Singleton, the single amputee. Great Britain's got a top runner named Jonnie Peacock. And there's Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira, the Brazilian who upset Pistorius on Sunday. All of them have a chance to win the 100-meter sprint tomorrow.
CHARLIE HUEBNER: It is just going to be phenomenal in terms of who's the favorite. And it's going to be one of the most fantastic races in sport history.
SHAPIRO: That's Charlie Huebner. He runs the Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee. And you've got to forgive him if he's a little over-excited about the 100-meter race because this is a moment that shows the maturing of the Paralympics.
HUEBNER: Athletes are getting better, no different than the Olympic program. And you're just seeing some incredible athletes with better training, better coaching, that are getting better and running near Olympic times.
SHAPIRO: The winner tomorrow will run the 100 meters in a little under 11 seconds. At the Olympics, Usain Bolt of Jamaica was a little more than a second faster. It helps that U.S. Paralympians now train side-by-side with American Olympic athletes - at the same training centers, under the same Olympic coaches. Prosthetic racing legs are getting better, too. Pistorius, when he lost the other day, complained that his competitor's new leg blades were too long and gave him an unfair advantage.
Paralympic officials said the winner's blades were a regulation size, but that they'll take another look at the rules for these legs. In world competitions, double and single amputees run together. And that leads to another friendlier controversy over who's got the advantage: a runner with one prosthetic leg or the guy with two? For an answer, let American champion Jerome Singleton explain it. He's got degrees in applied physics and industrial engineering.
SINGLETON: With a double amputee, they can't generate the type of force we can out of the block. But when they get up tall and start running, they're blessed to be symmetrical, so they can run through and have a smoother gait and be in control a little bit better.
SHAPIRO: So that's a prediction: the single-leg amputees start faster out of the blocks. But watch out for the double amputees, who on two prosthetic legs are more balanced and finish faster. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.