By Mark Meadows
ROVERETO, Italy (Reuters) - A woman carrying pole vaults in a purpose-built bag struggles to make her way through a crowd of screaming children at an athletics meeting in northern Italy.
Caster Semenya, the women's 800 meters world champion is alongside 2004 Olympic men's 100 gold medalist Justin Gatlin but the duo are not the recipients of the adulation.
Instead, Oscar Pistorius, who has never run in a world championship or an Olympics, is the one being mobbed by local youngsters even if some in the athletics fraternity had hoped the double amputee with prosthetic legs had gone away.
The South African 400 meters runner was splashed across the world's newspapers two years ago after winning his battle to race with able-bodied athletes having previously been banned.
He then failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2009 world championships in Berlin but his dream of reaching next year's worlds and London's 2012 Games burns brighter than ever.
"I'm sure at end of this year I'll reflect and take some positive points which I'll apply for the world championships and by the time 2012 comes around I should be qualifying quite comfortably," he told Reuters after coming third in a leisurely run of 47.14 seconds.
Arriving straight off a plane from South Africa did not help his time but his future aim is to consistently break 46 seconds and reach the qualification grade, thus becoming the first disabled track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics.
"My personal best before this season was 46.23, this year I came down to 46.02. I am knocking on the door, you can make that difference up just at the end of the race," he added.
"I missed it this year by two hundredths of a second, a bit too close for comfort. I have to work harder, I have to find better ways of recovering, train smarter and prepare for the next two years."
Pistorius began competing against able-bodied athletes in 2007 but the governing IAAF banned him after ruling the hi-tech blades he runs with gave him an unfair advantage.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport lifted the ban in 2008 and although he missed out on qualification for the Olympics, he won three gold medals in the Beijing Paralympics and continues to set disabled world records.
Even if he does make the South African team for London, Pistorius still plans to race in the 2012 Paralympics just a two weeks later.
"I've run five 400s in two days. I'm not really fazed by it," he said.
"The pressure is the biggest thing about an event like that, it's not really a physical issue. It'll demand a lot but I've been preparing for it for three or four years so I'm definitely going to be ready."
Although South African, Pistorius's powerbase is in Italy where he does much of his northern hemisphere training and competing.
The Italians, always the fan of an underdog and with few top-class athletes to call their own, have taken him to their hearts and dozens of fans waited eagerly for him after his race.
Having casually taken off the prosthetic blades which caused all the bother in 2008, he switched to his normal artificial legs before putting on his trousers and shoes.
Pistorius then proceeded to sign autograph after autograph and appear in countless photographs.
"I love running here," he said. "Hopefully next year I can come back and run a better time."
Despite the attention and being nicknamed "Blade Runner" by the media, the slightly shy 23-year-old talks like any other athlete desperate to make the grade at international level.
In a long conversation he did not mention his disability once.
"I enter the year thinking I'm having the best preparations and then at the end of the year I realize how much I have learnt from the season," he said as another teenage girl grabbed hold of him for a picture.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)