The first thing you notice about Alex Zanardi isn’t his prosthetic legs, or his stylish Italian clothing. It’s his love for life and infectious smile, which has helped him win fans across the globe.
Italy's Zanardi, who took home two gold medals and a silver at last summer's Paralympic Games, has no doubt the movement will go from strength to strength, despite the loss of its poster boy Pistorius.
"It still has to be clear the circumstances and what exactly happened in that terrible incident and Oscar was certainly a great flag bearer for this sport. But I think the sport is becoming strong enough to walk on its own legs," the 46-year-old says passionately.
Pistorius, who appeared at a court hearing on Tuesday ahead of his trial, and Zanardi have history. The pair have met on a number of occasions, including starting the final sprint of the 2009 Venice Marathon together and the 2012 Paralympic Games, where the ‘blade runner’ tweeted a picture of himself with Zanardi, who he called his "hero".
"The sport, which emerged in London, was appreciated by people, not because of Oscar Pistorius or Alex Zanardi, or others who competed there, but it was because people finally started to understand that those were great sporting events. Oscar in any case would have become an old man and stopped," claims Zanardi.
London 2012 pushed the Paralympics to new heights, with 2.7 million tickets sold and unparalleled a surge in interest, leaving a lasting legacy.
To watch a lady that jumps on the swimming pool with no arms and she swims faster than a shark, this gives me goose bumps on my skin. It’s amazing and if you’re not impressed by that you don’t have a heart
"To watch a lady that jumps on the swimming pool with no arms and she swims faster than a shark, this gives me goose bumps on my skin. It’s amazing and if you’re not impressed by that you don’t have a heart," adds Zanardi.
But Zanardi, who lost both legs in a motor racing accident in 2001, is under no illusions as to the limits of the movement.
"I’m not expecting the Paralympic Games to gain as much success as the Olympic Games, because it’s impossible. People want to see the fastest man on earth in a pair of jogging shoes. But next to that, maybe they also have an interest in who is the fasted man on earth on a pair of prosthetic legs.
"He [Pistorius] was able to break through the greatest level of popularity. His particularity was that he was running so fast, up to the point where he could compete among able bodied athletes and that certainly raised a lot of interest around the world," he adds.
Prior to the accident Zanardi has raced both in Formula One and Cart championships, with limited success. In the 1990s he bagged two Cart racing titles in the US.
But his dreams of more podium finishes came crashing down in 2001 when Zanardi's legs were amputated following a near-fatal Champ Car accident in Germany.
"I was a Formula One driver, who was winning races, stepping off the highest step on the podium, stepping into a private jet to kiss beautiful girls. All of a sudden he found himself in a hospital bed with a lot of wires and pipes and machines keeping him alive.
"My heart had stopped seven times. Science was not granting me one single chance to survive. Instead I was able to not only to survive but, really against all odds to recover," says Zanardi.
The Olympic and Paralympic Games threw up inspiring stories of human endeavour, bravery and courage, but Zanardi's tale takes some beating.
He returned to racing two years after the crash, competing in the FIA World Touring Car Championship for the BMW team from 2003 to 2009.
And in 2008 he took third place in a specially adapted car as part of an Italian-Spanish team that finished third in the World Touring Car Championship.
"This is the first time I competed against these guys and they are real athletes, super athletes, and to be competitive it was going to be really hard for me. It was not an easy task, but that’s why it was attractive," says Zanardi.
Determined to reinvent himself Zanardi switched to handcycling at the age of 42, and declared his intention to compete for Italy at the next Paralympic Games.
And this became the vehicle which finally took him to the top of a world class podium.
"I ended up winning medals in London because I wanted to ride my bicycle; I didn’t ride my bicycle because I wanted to win medals in London.
"When you talk about the Paralympic Games, there’s nothing any higher than that. And to walk away with two golds and silver in the time trials was certainly a dream come true."
But the victory was tinged with sadness, "I can go to Rio De Janiero, and who knows, maybe to a certain degree it will be more enjoyable, but the emotion I felt and the adrenalin I had at my first Paralympics will never come back."
Zanardi refers to the accident as one of the "greatest opportunities of his life", and credits his father, who died in 1994, for his success.
"I guess this comes down to the education I got from my dad. He always told me when I was a kid; take every day as an opportunity to add something to your life and this will grant you a new starting point for the following day, which will be slightly better than the previous one.
"So, there is nothing that you can’t make if you really want," he says.
Samrana Hussain is a freelance journalist who writes on international sport and news. She has covered three Olympic Games including Beijing 2008, London 2012 and numerous other global sporting events.
Follow her on Twitter @SamranaH
Source: Al Jazeera