The Telegraph
Saturday , February 16 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Show must go on without Oscar

- poster boy who forced authorities to redefine disability

London: Ignore the sick tweets, the kneejerk verdicts and the latest Frankie Boyle joke, and the brutal truth is that a woman has been violently killed and her boyfriend has been charged with murder.

It could be dismissed as a horrible personal tragedy, the sort that often happens in violent communities, but the shock is seismic because it involves a sports star who changed the world.

The unanswered questions about what happened and why in South Africa Thursday led to an ugly frenzy of speculation about Oscar Pistorius. Six months on from winning further gold at the Paralympic Games in London, the poster boy for parameter-pushing was in police custody.

There will be a funeral and a court case to come, so it seems trivial to consider the impact of this tragedy on mere sport, but Pistorius’s story always went far beyond the track.

At the Paralympics, Baroness Grey-Thompson said that she wanted the sport to step out from Pistorius's shadow. “I would like for us to leave London with 20 Paralympians being household names,” she said. Now, in the most unexpected and awful manner, and regardless of the emerging truth, the sport will have to get on without him.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Pistorius. We all now know he lives in a lavish compound in Pretoria thanks to a global profile and a raft of endorsements. That is not merely because he is a good athlete; Grey-Thompson, Sarah Storey, the gold-medal-winning cyclist, and others have more Paralympic medals.

Nor is it only because he competed against the non-disabled; Storey and others did that too. It is because he took on the authorities and forced them to redefine disability. It was costly, controversial and ended up in court, but he became the pioneer who crossed into the mainstream.

But while Pistorius’s ability to run against the able-bodied at both the World Championships and Olympic Games was headline-grabbing, it did not open the door for others.

The wording of the 2008 Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that freed him to run against the non-disabled was specific. “The ruling has no application to the eligibility of any other amputee athletes, or to any other model of prosthetic limb,” it concluded.

Even athletes do not realise that. Last month, Stef Reid, the British amputee long jumper, suggested she would try to compete against the able-bodied, evidently not appreciating that Pistorius had won his case, not hers.

He has done much for the Paralympic profile, but has he made them bigger than one man? Pistorius is rich and famous; David Weir won twice as many gold medals in London, but still lives in a council house in Wallington.

The big brands have been beating a path to the doors of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, and many believe Britain is an anomaly in its efforts to embrace Paralympic sport.

The American television network, NBC, was damned for screening only a 90-minute highlights package of the Paralympics, but you only had to look at British coverage of the Beijing Paralympics to question the role of parochialism in our critique.

British stars such as Hannah Cockroft and Jonnie Peacock, the conqueror of Pistorius in London, have said the opportunities to race are scarce. Peacock even said Paralympians were “filler” at the big meetings. Wednesday's announcement that Paralympians would take part at the London Anniversary Games was a start, but it has yet to be replicated by other countries.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC), which has invested much in making Pistorius the face of the sport, has announced a six-date series in Dubai, China, Brazil, Italy, the United States and Germany, but all the races already existed and were run in front of sparse crowds.

The problem for any sport is when one person dominates it. To an extent, Usain Bolt is the same in the able-bodied field. When he false-started out of the 2011 World Championships it was calamitous for athletics, leading to a widespread attack on the rules. Grey-Thompson realised that before the Paralympics. “At the moment, we are benefiting hugely from Oscar's profile, but it could get to the stage when Oscar gets bigger than the Paralympics,” she said.

She caused herself a lot of grief when she also suggested Pistorius should not be allowed to run at the Paralympics in the same event he had entered at the Olympics, claiming it was turning the Paralympic version into a “B” final.

But the sum of the story — having his legs amputated as a toddler, the tattoo marking his mother’s death, the speedboat crash, the CAS case and then the Olympics — meant criticism was often unwelcome.

It was why people got so angry when it was suggested that disability could be an advantage, even when that was clearly a possibility for anyone taking a cursory look at the science of blade-running.

Pistorius was fearless, though. He took on the IAAF, which accused him of affecting “the purity of the sport” and pointed fingers at the IPC for failing to heed his concerns about blade length. Some within the IAAF still regard him as a considerable irritant, while the blade row erupted when he lost the T44 200metres in London and let rip in an interview.

Without his persistence and profile, issues may fade away. He has blazed a trail, but do any of those in his wake have the same will to fight authority?

“Things have moved on,” Grey-Thompson told The Times Thursday. “You only have to look at the number of Paralympians being asked to film premieres.” She called on the Diamond League meetings to stage top-class Paralympic races, but added: “I think to really make it we have to crack America.” She mentioned President Obama’s plan to force schools to include disabled children in PE lessons.

To date, the only Paralympian to really crack America is Pistorius, who appeared on Piers Morgan’s CNN show before Christmas.

The often bitter row about his eligibility to run seems the fluff of trivia in the wake of a tragedy. The scientific debate always struggled with it not mattering to many whether his blades returned energy more efficiently anyway. Pistorius’s appeal was more nebulous - he was an inspiration.

Now sport, business and legions of admirers, disabled and otherwise, are dealing with that he may not be.