WE applaud the inspirational South African swimmer, Natalie du Toit, who trains 10 miles a day in preparation for the 10 kilometre open water event which makes its Olympic debut in Beijing. She is tipped to be her country's standard-bearer at the opening ceremony on Friday night.

Du Toit had her left leg amputated when it began to turn gangrenous following a motorbike accident in 2001. A car had crashed into the scooter she was riding.

The previous year she had narrowly failed to qualify for the Sydney Olympics, and one might have thought her career would have been over.

A former medley swimmer, she tried breaststroke but went round in circles, or over-compensated and hit the side wall. She concentrates on long distance because there is less kicking. "I do everything with my good leg and don't even kick with the other," she says.

Sixteen months after the operation she upstaged Australia's six-gold medal winning Ian Thorpe to win the award for the top athlete of the Commonwealth Games, having reached the 800m freestyle final.

She tried again for the Olympics in 2004 and failed, but went to Athens for the Paralympics, where she won five gold medals and a silver. Last year, at the All African Games in Algiers, she won 1500m freestyle gold against able-bodied swimmers. In May this year she was fourth at the Open Water World Championships, five seconds behind the winner, which qualified her for Beijing.

All this fairly quietly upstaging hysterical coverage surrounding her compatriot, blade-runner Oscar Pistorious. The double amputee proved not good enough to qualify for the Olympics.

But Miss du Toit does not have a monopoly on amputee or disability inspiration. It's an Olympic habit dating back to 1904, when George Eyser won six Olympic medals in a day. Eyser was born in 1871, in Kiel, and when he was 14 his family emigrated to Denver. He lost his left leg when he was struck by a train.

He moved to St Louis, became a US citizen in 1894, and when the Olympics were held there, Eyser proved the star of the gymnastics. On the 28th of October 1904 he won three gold medals (parallel bars, long horse vault, and 25-foot rope climb), two silver (pommel horse and combined), and one bronze (horizontal bar).

If Pistorius had made his country's Olympic team, South Africa could still not have claimed a double in disability sport. That title was surpassed long ago by Hungary.

Oliver Halassy won three Olympic water polo medals despite having had his left leg amputated below the knee following a childhood traffic accident. In Amsterdam (1928, silver) he scored three goals in four matches. In Los Angeles (1932, gold) he played in all three matches, and in Berlin (1936, gold) he played in all seven. Halassy also won the European 1500m freestyle swimming title in 1931.

Having been exempt from military service because of his so-called disability, Halassy was shot by a Russian soldier in 1946, after a robbery near his home.

In 1948 Karoly Takacs won rapid-fire pistol gold. Before the war he had been a member of the Hungarian team that won the world title, but in 1938 his right hand was shattered by a grenade. He learned to shoot left-handed, and in London 50 years ago today he won Olympic gold.

Before the event the world record holder and favourite, Diaz Saenz Valente, asked Takacs why he had come to London. "I'm here to learn," said the Hungarian.

On the podium, the second-placed Argentine said to Tacacs: "You have learned enough."

Third of the magical Magyars was Ujlaky-Rejto Ildiko. She did not have a limb amputated, but was cut off from the world. Born deaf, she began fencing aged 15, with coaches communicating by written instruction between sessions. Ildiko fenced in five Olympics (1960 to 1976) winning individual gold and bronze, one team gold, three silvers and a bronze. She was world foil champion in 1963, and in 1999 she won the women's foil (over-60) at the World Veterans Championships.