Olympics

Pistorius, South Africa reach relay final

Oscar Pistorius (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Oscar Pistorius helps South Africa reach the 4x400-meter final.
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DAEGU, South Korea (AP)

Double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius reached his first major final on Thursday, leading off South Africa's 4x400-meter relay team at the world championships and helping it qualify with a national record.

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Another South African, defending 800 champion Caster Semenya, advanced easily into the semifinals after she had been struggling through much of the year in the wake of a gender controversy.

After making a historic breakthrough for Paralympic athletes by reaching the semifinals of the 400, Pistorius ran a strong opening leg on the tough inside lane. He handed over to Oftentse Mogawane, who briefly gave the relay team the lead before it settled for third place in a South African record of 2 minutes, 59.21 seconds.

"It's unbelievable to be part of one of the four names on the list to run a national record," Pistorius said. "It makes me extremely proud. To make the finals even makes me more happy."

It was already considered an amazing performance to get into the 400 semifinals on his carbon-fiber blades, but on Thursday, the relay performance did one better for the runner who had his legs amputated when he was a baby.

Standing on the sidelines after finishing his first leg, he shouted encouragement and applauded his teammates as they made sure of qualification for Pistorius' first final through a humid morning heat of 37 degrees C (97 degrees F).

"We expected to qualify, but this national record is a big bonus," teammate Willem De Beer said.

The United States and Jamaica led qualifying, just ahead of South Africa, highlighting Pistorius will be a medal contender on Friday.

"I realized he's just like every other runner here. That's how I see him now," American relay runner Greg Nixon said. "I got to meet him, got to talk to him. I realized he's just like us."

Semenya also came through fine. She was drawn in a heat alongside Mariya Savinova of Russia, who has the season's top time. Still, the 20-year-old South African led through much of the finishing straight and eased up to allow Savinova victory as both clocked the same time of 2:01.01.

Semenya won the 800 as a little-known teenager in Berlin two years ago but was immediately engulfed in a controversy. She was forced out of competition for 11 months following gender tests before being cleared to compete again. She then missed the 2010 Commonwealth Games with a back injury.

Before a crowd of about 25,000 at Daegu Stadium, she was inconspicuous among the other runners and got almost no reaction from the fans as her name was announced. Early in the race she was in fifth place, then slightly bumped into a competitor halfway through and quickly made her way up into a qualifying position. She was never threatened in a composed performance before she kicked for home.

"I'm not under pressure," Semenya said.

In the high jump, Blanka Vlasic was flawless through the qualifying height of 1.95 and showing no ill effect from a partially torn muscle in her left leg which kept her almost out of defending the world title she has held since 2007. All other favorites also went through into Saturday's final.

In the long jump, Olympic champion Irving Saladino failed to get into the final, jumping only 7.84 meters, 18 centimeters of the last qualifying mark.

In the 200 heats, American teammates Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix had a lot on the line. Jeter is looking to complete a sprint double by adding the 200 to her 100 gold while Felix is seeking a record fourth straight title in the event.

Jeter got the better of Veronica Campbell-Brown in the women's 100, but during Thursday's 200 heats, it was the two-time Olympic champion from Jamaica who set the best time, running in the outside lane in 22.46.

Twenty meters from the line, Jeter slightly stumbled when realizing she was running close to the line of her lane. She slowed but still easily won her heat in 22.68, ahead of Jamaican rival Sherone Simpson.

"I feel pretty good going into the next round," Jeter said of Thursday evening's semifinals. "Right now, I need to get work done."

One heat later, Felix shot out of her blocks in the outside lane and settled in an easy trot to qualify for the semifinals in 22.71, just behind Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands.

Felix was seeking a 400-200 double but a loss to Amantle Montsho of Botswana in the 400 has forced the American to focus on defending the 200 title. The 200 puts her back in the comfort zone.

"This is what I love to do," Felix said. "Just hoping my body allows me to do it at the best I can."

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