Oscar Pistorius made history this year by becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics. But while the 25-year-old South African, sometimes called the Blade Runner for the carbon-fiber prosthetics that help him run, failed to reach the finals in the men’s 400 m, the results ultimately did not matter: the fact that he was there competing alongside athletes with both their legs was enough to capture all of the attention. Kirani James, the runner from Grenada who went on to win gold in the event, said to reporters after the race: “I just see him as another athlete, as another competitor but most importantly as a human being, another person.” So even before he took his place on the starting block for the men’s T44 200 m at this year’s Paralympic Games on Sunday, Pistorius was a transformative figure.
Then he lost.
It was by all accounts a stunning upset: Pistorius was beaten by 0.07 seconds by another double amputee, Brazil’s Alan Oliveira. “We are not running in a fair race here,” Pistorius told the U.K.’s Channel 4 after the race, complaining about International Paralympic Committee (IPC) regulations that allowed his competitor to artificially lengthen his blades — and thus, his stride. “I’m not taking away from Alan’s performance but … his knee heights are 4 in. higher than they should be.” He later apologized for his outburst, but does “believe that there is an issue here.” In his statement, Pistorius did concede that “I accept that raising these concerns immediately as I stepped off the track was wrong. That was Alan’s moment, and I would like to put on record the respect I have for him.”
(PHOTOS: Oscar Pistorius’ Historic Race)
While Pistorius’ inclusion in the 2012 London Olympics was seen as a transformative moment, his defeat in the 200 m is a reminder that he’s not the only talented Paralympian out there — and that others could eventually not only qualify for the Olympics but someday go on to win. Recent developments in prosthetics have opened the door to the possibility that “Paralympic athletes could one day run faster than Usain Bolt,” as David James of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University told the Associated Press.
Yet the focus on such developments neglects the historically fluid line between athletes and “disabled” athletes (a term that the IPC president, Philip Craven, has said he wishes to do away with). Athletes with disabilities have competed in the Olympics since the early days of the modern Games, and many have competed in both the Olympics and Paralympics.
German-born U.S. gymnast George Eyser competed in the 1904 St. Louis games with a wooden left leg, a replacement for the one he lost after being run over by a train as a child. He won gold in three events — including in the vault and the 25-ft. rope climb — as well as two silvers and a bronze.
Hungarian water-polo player Oliver Halassy, who also had a leg amputated, competed in three Olympic Games from 1928 through 1936.
Even after the creation of the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes in 1948, athletes with disabilities have competed in the Olympics. Partially deaf swimmer Jeff Float competed with the U.S. team in the 4 x 200-m relay in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. As he extended his team’s lead in the third leg of the race that they went on to win, the roar of the home crowd was so loud that he was able to hear it for the first time.
Marla Runyan, who is legally blind, dominated the track-and-field events at the 1992 and 1996 Paralympics, taking gold in the 100 m and long jump. She then became an Olympian, competing in the 1,500 m during the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
South African long-distance swimmer Natalie du Toit lost her leg in a car accident at age 17, and placed 16th in the 10-km swim in 2008 in the Beijing Olympics. Natalia Partyka also competed in both the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, and is doing so again this year. The Polish table-tennis player was born without a right hand and forearm. She has yet to medal at either events, having just missed the quarterfinals in the 2012 Olympic women’s singles.
While only a handful of athletes are making this transition, the fact that there are Paralympians out there who are able to qualify and compete in the Olympics suggests the possibility for bigger changes to come in the future. Craven, the IPC president, suggested to the BBC in May that the Paralympics and Olympics could someday merge into one event.
As for Pistorius, he’ll have other chances for gold: he’s competing in the 4 x 100-m relay, the 100-m and the 400-m events later this week. But his loss on Sunday to Oliveira is a reminder that he’s not the only elite Paralympian on the track — and that there are plenty more on his heels.