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Even without a win, Pistorius makes real impact in London

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius embraces Grenada's Kirani James after the men's 400-metre semi-final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

For years now, many have see only the blades.

Or, more specifically, the controversy surrounding them.

But the "should he or shouldn't he" debate that's always encircling Oscar Pistorius appears to have taken a breather, with his fellow athletes all welcoming him as an equal at the Olympics and the 25-year-old South African only too happy to accept the offer.

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Even many of the crusty cynics in the media seemed to allow that the double amputee was both a good story and a humble, honest subject willing to dedicate hours and hours to their questions, moving him up in a notch on their hit lists.

For now.

Pistorius wasn't a winner in his race on Sunday. (In fact, he was last.) He was never going to be – and he knew that. Even his best times weren't on par with the best in the 400 metres, not when his starts are so tentatively slow.

(He explained after the race that not having ankle joints is a significant disadvantaged when trying to accelerate in the early stages of a sprint.)

But his goal was simply to be at these Games and maybe make the semi-finals, which he accomplished with an eye-opening 45.44 second race in Saturday's heats.

Even without a win, however, Pistorius made a real impact in London, highlighting some of the benefits of allowing him to compete.

He was a fan favourite, there's no question, drawing roars as loud at Olympic Stadium as all those gold medal winning Brits. He was also called "an inspiration" by many of his competitors, in several different languages.

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One of those was Kirani James of Grenada, one of the best of the distance. He blazed through Pistorius's race in the lead but doubled back after it ended to exchange name tags and a hug with him after their race.

James had been moved, just like many others there that day.

"Oscar is a very special guy and I was honoured to be out here on the track with him," he said afterward.

While Sunday was a day where Usain Bolt was obviously the story and the star, overshadowing everything else that happened on the track – including Pistorius's run – there are similarities between the two stars.

They're fitting icons, in their own different ways, with Bolt's brash confidence befitting a 100-metre champ and Pistorius's aw-shucks gratitude much the same for his role.

One set a goal to be a legend. The other simply set a goal to be there.

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"It just felt really magical," Pistorius said. "If I could predict what it would feel like or imagine beyond my wildest dreams, this was probably 10 times that.

"To step out in front of a crowd this massive, it's a mind-blowing experience. I've had support in the last couple of days like I have never felt before."

Pistorius has been perhaps the most active Olympian of any on Twitter the past few days, as he's interacted with fans and celebrities and expressed, over and over, how much this has meant to him.

On Monday morning he tweeted: "I woke up this morning overwhelmed by the 1000's of messages of well wishes. Thank You for making this 1 of the Greatest moments of my life!"

His profile photo on the social media site, meanwhile, is of him running alongside a five year old girl named Ellie Challis, with both wearing the racing blades and competing in their own mock race.

A look around the grounds at Olympic Stadium and you could find a number of fans with similar stories, all of whom were travelling to watch on in wheelchairs or while wearing prosthetics.

They were there to see him, more than even Bolt, and to watch a new hero make history doing something only technology has allowed a double amputee to accomplish.

Separating out the competitive issues, it's truly wonderful we've gotten to a point where this is possible. And he's certainly a worthy role model for that cause.

You can question Pistorius's natural ability – and the cynics certainly were, even after he brought 80,000 fans to their feet twice on the weekend – but his motivations and character are clear.

He wants to race, just like anyone else would, even though he clearly isn't like anyone else out there on the track.

"Most importantly, he's a good person," James said. "That trumps everything else."

For some, maybe. Others aren't so sure.

Pistorius undoubtedly added something of significance to these Games. He won hearts and minds and converted some of the non-believers. Seeing the so-called Blade Runner in person will do that, especially when you see him smile and hear him speak.

It's genuine, just like Bolt, and it's who he is.

But what comes next is the tough part. It's one thing to have him race in heats and semi-finals, especially when winning is out of the question. What will be interesting is what people will make of Pistorius should he win a medal, something that remains a possibility when the 4x400 relays begin on Thursday.

The South African team, after all, took silver at last year's worlds, and that came with Pistorius running a leg in a heat (but not the final) in another historic first.

And what if Pistorius, who intends to race in 2016 at the next Games, improves to the point he is one of the world's best, four years from now?

Or what if someone he inspired the past two days is, down the road, able to race a 400-metre sprint two or three seconds faster than their idol?

The first Blade Runner drew awe, respect and, for many, now, acceptance. What will the second, third and later Paralympians-turned-Olympians face, especially if their advantages are even more advantageous?

There's no easy answer to any of that, especially since that when this door was opened, someone as impressive as Pistorius entered and had the world cheer his arrival.

Give the man his moment – and what a moment it was – but from here, there may not be any going back.

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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