Blade Runner Pistorius Pushes Athletic, Financial Boundaries of His Sport
Oscar Pistorius’s quest to become the first athlete on prosthetic limbs to compete in the Olympics may boost sponsorship income for paralympic sports.
Pistorius made history last month by becoming the only double amputee athlete ever to run in the IAAF world championships in South Korea. He helped South Africa win a silver medal in the 1,600-meter relay in Daegu and is now being promoted by organizers of next year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.
Being a high-profile athlete “is not only important for me, but it’s important for paralympic sports,” Pistorius said in an interview in London. He’s competing in the 400 meters tomorrow at the Van Damme Memorial meet in Brussels.
Nicknamed the Blade Runner for his J-shaped carbon fiber legs, Pistorius competed in his first able-bodied elite event in Daegu. He got his chance after sport’s highest tribunal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in 2008 overturned a ban on him competing against able-bodied athletes imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, which said his blades give him an advantage.
Pistorius was born without fibulas. When he was 11 months old, his father Henk and late mother Sheila followed doctors’ advice to have both his legs amputated below the knee.
As a child, he played sports including water polo, cricket, tennis and boxing. As part of his rehabilitation after injuring his knee while playing rugby as a 16-year-old, Pistorius took up track. A year later he won the gold medal in the 200 meters at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.
The 24-year-old from Pretoria has signed six endorsements with companies including Nike Inc. (NKE), French perfume brand Thierry Mugler, sunglass brand Oakley and U.K. phone company BT Group Plc. Novak Djokovic, who won the U.S. Open Sept. 12 for his third Grand Slam tennis title of the year, has five sponsorships.
Pistorius earns about 2 million pounds ($3.16 million) a year, which could rise by 50 percent if he competes in the London Olympics, Nigel Currie, director of London-based sports marketing agency brandRapport, said in an e-mail.
The emergence of Pistorius, who won three gold medals at the Beijing Paralympics and is targeting four at the 2012 event, may persuade more companies to back paralympic sports, said Ian Henry, director of the Centre for Olympic Studies and Research at Loughborough University in the U.K.
“Having athletes competing in both Games is a very positive aspect,” Henry said in an interview. “It valorizes the notion of paralympic athletes as elite, world-class athletes.”
Last year, J Sainsbury Plc (SBRY), the U.K.’s third-largest supermarket company, became the first stand-alone sponsor of the Paralympics in a deal the London Evening Standard said was worth 20 million pounds. Approximately 2 million Paralympic tickets are on sale until Sept. 26.
Such endorsements will help performances in paralympic sports, Pistorius said.
“That’s where corporate sponsorship definitely comes in and plays a big role,” he said. “Performances can only come when athletes have got peace of mind and when they are focused completely on what they are doing.”
London 2012 organizers last week said they’ve raised more than 690 million pounds from 41 domestic sponsors for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Since starting in the shadows of the Rome Olympics in 1960, the Paralympics have grown from 400 athletes from 23 nations to 4,200 competitors from 150 countries next year in London. The Beijing Paralympics attracted a record cumulative global television audience of 3.8 billion people.
Pistorius’s path to Daegu was controversial, with some scientists and athletes including former 400-meter runner Roger Black, who won two silver medals for Britain at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, saying his blades may give him an unfair edge.
“The science has proved that there is no advantage in the legs,” Pistorius said, citing research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Any performance increases that I’ve made have been from training, have been from the dedication that I show, have been from the knowledge of my coach and of my trainers.”
Three days after being eliminated in the semifinals of the 400 meters in Daegu, Pistorius helped South Africa break an 11- year-old national record as the leadoff runner in the 1,600 meter relay. He was dropped from the team that took silver in the final.
“I’ll always be disappointed that I wasn’t in the final,” Pistorius said. “I really deserved to have been there.”
Pistorius “is a superstar” who may inspire more paralympic athletes to compete in able-bodied competitions, Jon Sigurdsson, president and chief executive officer of Ossur Hf, the Icelandic company that produces the runner’s blades, said in an interview.
“What Oscar has done has been awesome,” said April Holmes, an American sprinter who won a 100-meter gold medal at the Beijing Paralympics. “He’s truly a pioneer of our sport.”
Pistorius said he’s confident he’ll run the qualification time needed to make the London Olympics, where he aims to improve on his performance at Daegu.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s each year running better and asserting yourself in a position better than you had in previous years.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.