Double Amputee Gives NBC A Mettle Favorite

Is this true? A double amputee will be competing head-to-head this summer with some of the world’s greatest athletes. Guys with legs. Same track, same rules. The distance to the finish line won’t be any shorter.

The Summer Olympics always carry a Rip Van Winkle dynamic. Many Americans have no clue what’s going on with swimming, track and gymnastics in the intervening four years between Games. Then overnight, they become experts. Athletes -- both foreign and domestic -- with touching, inspiring stories become family.

Oscar Pistorius is about to be adopted. There was considerable shock today to learn the South African runner with blades as prosthetic legs will be competing in the 400-meter and 4X400-meter relay races in the London Games.

He is not the medal favorite. He is the mettle favorite.

The so-called “Blade Runner” will provide an unexpected gift for NBC. The 26-year-old is being lumped in with Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt as athletes who can deliver big-time ratings.



Pistorius may not make the finals of either of his events. So, NBC is likely to make those usually ho-hum qualifying races prime-time tentpoles. Records won’t be set on the track, but could be for number of commercials leading up to the starting gun.  

(If Pistorius makes the finals, Al Michaels may have to take a break from his afternoon hosting duties to call the race should there be a need for some sort of “Do You Still Believe In Miracles” thing. Yes, let’s get carried away!)

Unexpectedly, Pistorius was named to the South African team for the 400-meter race on Wednesday. He had been selected for the relay team, but had not met a qualifying standard on the individual front. It’s not exactly clear how he got the double duty.

A misanthrope might wonder if there was some chain running between NBC, the International Olympic Committee and SASCOC (South Africa’s Olympic body) to get Pistorius a second berth in the Games. Procter & Gamble is a SASCOC partner and worldwide Olympic sponsor, so that misanthrope might wonder if it did any lobbying.

(Pistorius lost his mother at 15 and her legacy might make for an addition to P&G’s “Proud Sponsor of Moms” campaign. Perhaps, there could be a “We Like Dads, Too” tribute spot to his father.) 

Actually, it might be that SASCOC -- and by extension South Africa -- wanted to seize the moment and make a statement about determination, achieving dreams and respect for the handicapped, while perhaps lifting national pride. (Pistorius has had plenty of success and would bristle at any suggestion of a handout. And, SASCOC President Gideon Sam told the AP “we are not taking passengers to London.”)

It’s a bit of a different tack than the PGA Tour took when it wouldn’t let golfer Casey Martin ride a cart in competition. Martin, who has trouble walking because of a circulatory condition in his right leg, eventually won a Supreme Court case involving the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last month, he made a stirring appearance in the U.S. Open.

Pistorius is a Dick Ebersol special. The long-time NBC Olympics showrunner with the taste for the sentimental is working as a consultant for NBCUniversal in London.

Some think Ebersol has a tendency to go over the top, but if he oversees any of the Pistorius coverage, there’s no risk of that. It’s tough to overcook Pistorius’ story.

NBC has already given Pistorius, who underwent amputation surgery before his first birthday, the Ebersol treatment with a rousing 12-minute profile last month on “Rock Center with Brian Williams.” Some of the footage, where his spectacular smile and potential as an endorsement superstar were on ample display, may run again.  

There continues to be debate whether a guy whose legs were amputated has an advantage with his high-tech prostheses over “able-bodied” athletes. In 2008, an international sports governing body banned him. He appealed and the Court of Arbitration For Sport gave him the go-ahead the next year, after which he failed to qualify for the Beijing Games. 

He did make the Paralympics that year for the second time. This year, though, he’ll leave that behind. He’s big time now.

Nope, he’ll run in the Paralympics again after the Olympics. That says as much as anything about him.

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