He was a national treasure who inspired the world when he made Olympics history as the first double amputee runner to compete using prosthetic blades. She was a blond-haired, blue-eyed cover girl and celebrity model, with a law degree and an interest in women’s rights.
But in a Valentine’s Day tragedy involving South Africa’s “Blade Runner,” Oscar Pistorius, the body of a woman was found in a pool of blood early Thursday at his home in an upscale suburb of Pretoria. Pistorius was charged with murder in the death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
She died of several bullet wounds to the head and arm.
South Africans reacted as though the news concerned a family member or close friend: “Did you hear what happened with Oscar?”
Pistorius bolted to fame in 2004 on curved carbon-fiber legs and made history when he reached the semifinals of the London Olympics in 2012. In the intervening years, he won awards, honorary doctorates and sponsorships and became one of South Africa’s best-known individuals. In 2008 and 2012, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
“Oscar was our good thing,” wrote Mail and Guardian columnist Sarah Britten, describing a sense of collective shock. “Oscar was our story, a hero who, for all his flaws, overcame the odds and exemplified the greatness of the human spirit.
“He was a great South African brand, and now his story, and our part of it, lay in tatters.”
Although his relationship with Steenkamp was relatively new — the first time the two were linked in public was at the South African Sports Awards several months ago — they had appeared a golden couple, both attractive and highly regarded. Some unconfirmed reports suggest they had been dating for a year.
Many seized on early news reports that he accidentally shot Steenkamp, mistaking her for a burglar, a common enough tragedy in a country with one of the highest rates of homicide and violent crime, where many people keep guns at home to guard against intruders.
For a man to shoot the woman he loved was, people reasoned, a sign of just how frightened South Africans are in their own homes because of violent robberies.
A New York Times Magazine profile of Pistorius early last year mentioned an incident in which his home burglar alarm went off in the middle of the night, and he went downstairs with a gun. That turned out to be a false alarm.
Just in November, Pistorius, who practiced target shooting for leisure, had posted a comical remark on Twitter: “Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry!”
As the shock about the incident reverberated on social media, few were willing to entertain an alternative scenario: Perhaps this story involved a different kind of violence.
But as the day wore on, the Pistorius legend began to fray. Police appeared to discount the reports that Pistorius had killed his girlfriend by accident. A police spokeswoman, Denise Beukes, said police were surprised by the reports, according to the South African Press Association.
“I confirm there had been previous incidents of a domestic nature at his place,” Beukes said, and that police had interviewed neighbors who heard sounds at Pistorius’ home earlier in the evening and at the time the killing reportedly took place.
Prosecutors said Pistorius would spend the night in jail, and police indicated they would oppose bail at a hearing Friday, without elaborating on why.
Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told reporters that he didn’t know the facts about Steenkamp’s death but said his son was sad.
“I don’t know nothing. It will be extremely obnoxious and rude to speculate,” he said in a radio interview. “If anyone makes a statement, it will have to be Oscar.”
Within hours of the news of the killing, billboards and TV advertisements featuring the Olympian were taken down. A Nike ad on Pistorius’ website describing him as “the bullet in the chamber” was removed, although Nike told a local newspaper, Business Day, that it was withholding judgment on the tragedy.
Steenkamp had something special planned for Pistorius for Valentine’s Day, judging by one of her last tweets, on Wednesday: “What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow?”
Steenkamp, the daughter of a horse trainer in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth, in Eastern Cape province, was the face of Avon cosmetics here and had a role in a reality TV show, “Tropika Island of Treasure 5,” due to begin airing this weekend. Her publicist, Sarit Tomlinson, called her “the kindest, sweetest human being, an angel on Earth,” according to local news reports.
Pistorius soared to public prominence after winning gold in the 200-meter race at the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, running on carbon-fiber blades known as Flex-Foot Cheetahs. Both of his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old because he had been born without fibulae.
He began his long, public battle to be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. In 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations ruled that Pistorius’ blades gave him an unfair advantage in competition. The federation later revoked the decision, opening the way for him to compete in the London Olympics.
In London, he reached the 400-meter semifinals but failed to qualify for the final. It didn’t matter to South Africans. By then, he was an international media icon, feted for his courage and perseverance in a country where one of the few unifying factors is sport.
In Time magazine in 2008, Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Everest, wrote that Pistorius was turning things upside down for disabled athletes.
“He’s on the cusp of a paradigm shift in which disability becomes ability, disadvantage becomes advantage,” he wrote.
Small scandals dogged Pistorius over the years but were swept aside. There was an accident in 2009 in which he crashed a speedboat and ended up in intensive care. News reports cited witnesses contesting his version of the accident — that he’d hit a floating log — saying that he’d smashed into a pier. He was never charged.
Claims also surfaced that he had assaulted a woman in 2009; he was arrested and jailed overnight but released, later threatening to sue her. Clifton van der Burgh, creator of the reality show Steenkamp appeared in, was reported to have opened a case against Pistorius in November, accusing him of sending threatening text messages.
One newspaper conceded Thursday that Pistorius “has not always been a gentleman,” citing reports of bursts of temper, arrogance and drunken aggression at concerts.
One of the most damaging public incidents, for a man who had overcome objections that his blades offered him an unfair advantage, was his attack on fellow Paralympian Alan Oliveira, who also uses prosthetic blades, after the Brazilian defeated him in the London Paralympics last year. Pistorius alleged that Oliveira’s blades were too long and gave him an unfair advantage. He later withdrew his statement.
The scandals, wrote columnist Britten, “didn’t matter so much before, because he was a hero and we wanted him to be perfect.”
Whatever unfolded between Steenkamp and Pistorius in the early hours of Thursday, it was something so common in South Africa as to be almost banal: A man accidentally shot his girlfriend to death, or a man didn’t shoot her accidentally.
The only reason it hit the headlines in South Africa was Pistorius’ celebrity.
“Once the South African hero, Oscar is now just another South African tragedy,” Britten wrote.
By Robyn Dixon - Los Angeles Times
©2013 Los Angeles Times
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