LONDON – It began with a smile at the starting line.
Moments later, Oscar Pistorius took off and the click-click-clicking of carbon on the track was all but drowned out by the 80,000 fans on hand to watch him make history Saturday.
The first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics, Pistorius cruised past an opponent or two in the backstretch of his 400-meter heat, and by the end, the “Blade Runner” was coasting to stress-free success.
Typical. Except this time, it was anything but that.
“I’ve worked for six years … to get my chance,” said the South African, who finished second and advanced to tonight’s semifinals. “I found myself smiling in the starting block. Which is very rare in the 400 meters.”
Yes, this sun-splashed day at Olympic Stadium was a good one for Pistorius, a double-amputee who runs on carbon-fiber blade prosthetics and whose fight to get to this point has often felt more like a marathon than a sprint.
He walked out of the tunnel and looked into the stands, where he saw his friends and family — including his 89-year-old grandmother, who held a South African flag.
“It’s very difficult to separate the occasion from the race,” Pistorius conceded.
But he figured it out. He finished in a season-best time of 45.44 seconds, crossing the line and looking up at the scoreboard, then covering his face with his hands when he saw the capital “Q” — for qualifier — by his name.
“Couldn’t have hoped for anything better,” he said.
The 25-year-old runner was born without fibulas and his legs were amputated below the knee before he was a year old. He’s an accomplished runner, with four Paralympic gold medals, but he waged a long fight to run in the Olympics against able-bodied opponents.
Saturday’s morning session also featured the heats of the men’s 100.
Hardly dazzling after so much anticipation, Usain Bolt was pedestrian out of the blocks — his reaction time ranked sixth of the eight runners in his heat — then insisted all that mattered was that he made it to the semifinals by shrugging off that poor beginning to win his race in 10.09 seconds.
“I stumbled on the start,” the 25-year-old Jamaican said. “I really didn’t do a lot of executing.”
At Beijing in 2008, a showboating Bolt ruled track and field, winning golds in world-record times in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay – something no man had ever done at the Olympics. At the 2009 world championships, he lowered his 100 mark to 9.58, which still stands.
But he’s been less than outstanding recently. A false start knocked him out of the 100 at last year’s world championships, and he lost to training partner Yohan Blake in the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic trials.
And another rough reaction to the starter’s pistol could make things tough tonight, when the 100 semifinals and final are scheduled.