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Double amputee runner Oscar Pistorius advances in Olympic debut

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competes during Round 1 of the men's 400m heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Tears welled up in his eyes as he completed yet another round of interviews, describing over and over the biggest day in what's been a remarkable young life.

Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee dubbed the Blade Runner, had competed in the Olympics.

Not only that: He was moving on.

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Pistorius ran a season best 45.44 seconds in the first heat of the men's 400 metres on Saturday, finishing second in the race to move him automatically onto Sunday's semi-finals.

That had been his goal coming in, and with his father and grandmother looking on, he ran coolly and confidently through one lap around the track on his high tech prosthetics.

As he ran, the Olympic Stadium crowd cheered, with the volume increasing in each section as he went by.

"It was just an unbelievable experience," he said. "I found myself smiling in the starting blocks – which is really rare in the 400 metres."

Already a four-time gold medalist at the Paralympic Games, Pistorious's story has been well told by now.

He was born in Johannesburg without a fibula in both legs, and they were amputated below the knee just before his first birthday. By age 11, he was a top athlete, competing in rugby, water polo, tennis and wrestling.

A knee injury 10 years ago led to a switch from rugby to sprinting and he competed at his first Paralympic Games as a 17-year-old in Athens soon after, winning gold in the 200 metres and bronze in the 100 metres.

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While controversy has followed Pistorius's push to compete against able-bodied athletes, there was none of that on display on Saturday. Several of his competitors, in fact, called him "an inspiration."

The questions from the media over whether he should be able to race, however, were still there.

"Because he is a good athlete," Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, who won their heat with a time of 45.04, said through a translator after he was asked why he thought Pistorius should be allowed to race. "An inspiration."

"He created history," Grenada's Kirani James added. "I have a lot of respect for him. He's a great person. If he wants to compete with us, it is what it is. He's another athlete with a lot of love for track and field. He inspired me. It takes a lot of courage to do what he does."

Pistorius's time wasn't his best – he has run a 45.07 in the past – but it was good enough to put him 16th of the 24 racers moving on.

It took a 44.80 to win bronze four years ago in Beijing, meaning it's highly unlikely Pistorius can win a medal, although he will also race on South Africa's 4x400 relay team that won a world championship silver last year.

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Pistorius said Saturday, however, that he had already accomplished what he set out to at these Games.

"My goal was to make the semi-final and that was going to be a tough goal for me," Pistorius said. "My times are off the top guys in the world. I had to run a really hard race to make the semi-final."

He then finished his interviews with a quote from his late mother, Sheila, who died 10 years ago after a reaction to medication and remains on his mind.

Pistorius has the date she died (March 6, 2002) tattooed on his arm.

"She was kind of a hard-core person," Pistorius said. "She didn't take no for an answer. And she always told me 'A loser isn't the person who gets involved and comes last, it's the person who doesn't get involved in the first place.' "

Meanwhile, LaShawn Merritt's defence of his 400-metre crown lasted only a few seconds as the American pulled up injured in his qualifying heat.

Merritt, the fastest in the world this year with 44.12, appeared on track with a heavily strapped left thigh in a bid to protect a hamstring injury suffered when he pulled up with cramp running in Monaco on July 30.

With a file from Associated Press

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