MANY HAVE GONE BEFORE; OTHERS SURE TO FOLLOW
As the two-week Summer Olympics of 2012 comes to a conclusion, a ton of controversy was generated by the appearance of a single competitor from the Republic of South Africa by the name of Oscar Pistorius. He will be remembered as one of the more compelling stories, alongside the likes of Michael Phelps, Team USA basketball and women’s soccer and the surge of the People’s Republic of China as the main competitor to the ongoing dominance of the USA.
Oscar Pistorius qualified for the semi-final in the Men’s 400 meter individual race before failing to make the finals. He will return to the Olympic stage for the 4x400m relay before turning his attention to the Paralympic Games. He was quoted as saying, “I didn’t come here to prove a point. I wanted to do the best I could do and push myself as hard as I can.”
But Pistorius, who runs on carbon-fiber blades because his legs were amputated below the knees as a child, isn’t the first “disabled” athlete to find success against “able-bodied” competitors. Heck, he isn’t even the first South African to do it.
How about this list?
Marla Runyan — The first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics, Runyan ran the 1,500 meters for the United States in 2000 and the 5,000 meters in 2004. She also finished fourth in the 2002 New York City Marathon and won the 2006 Twin Cities Marathon.
Monty Stratton — They made a movie about the Chicago White Sox All-Star who accidentally shot himself while hunting and lost his right leg above the knee in 1938. He never returned to the majors, but he pitched in the minor leagues till 1953 when he was 43 years old.
Sean Elliott — The former Tucson Cholla High and Arizona star was the first pro athlete to play after an organ transplant, returning to the San Antonio Spurs in 2000 less than seven months after receiving a kidney from his brother Noel.
Natalie du Toit — In the 2008 Beijing Games, the South African was the first disabled swimmer to compete in the Olympics and finished 16th in the 10,000-meter swim. Her left leg was amputated seven years earlier after she was hit by a car while riding her scooter.
Natalia Partyka — Born without a right hand or forearm, Partyka also competed in table tennis at the 2008 Beijing Games and represented Poland again in London this year.
Casey Martin — We all were reminded recently of his story when he qualified for the U.S. Open at age 40. Martin, now the golf coach at Oregon, was born with a congenital condition that weakened and atrophied his lower right leg, and he successfully sued the PGA Tour in 2001 clearing the way for him to use a cart while playing in tour events.
Jim Abbott — Born without a right hand, the left-handed pitcher not only made it to the major leagues, he fashioned a 10-year career and, in 1993, while with the Yankees, threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians.
Anthony Robles — Born without a right leg, Robles excelled at wrestling at Mesa High (Mesa, AZ), where he won a pair of state championships. Then at Arizona State he was a three-time conference champion and All-American, capping it all off with the 2011 NCAA championship.
Like Pistorius, there were those who questioned whether he had an advantage, evidently believing that without the weight of one leg he had more upper-body size and strength than opponents. Never mind that he had to create a unique wrestling style to fit his body.
Tom Dempsey — Again like Pistorius, critics complained that the Saints kicker, who was born with no fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot, had an unfair advantage when he booted a 63-yard field goal against the Lions in 1970 that has been equaled, but never surpassed in the NFL.
Dempsey, who wore a flat-toed shoe and kicked straight on, lasted 11 seasons in the NFL and made a Pro Bowl. For an episode of “Sports Science,” ESPN analyzed the kick and the shoe and found that Dempsey actually might have been at a disadvantage. No kidding.