Oscar Pistorius was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. This story, originally published March 1, 2013, year delves into the world of an athlete who fell from glory as global inspiration during the London 2012 Games, to a man charged with murder.
It was, by all accounts, an accident. Although not one that Oscar Pistorius was willing to take responsibility for. Out for dinner with his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and a bunch of other rich, young athletes and hangers-on at a trendy Johannesburg restaurant this past January, the man they call the Blade Runner was admiring someone else’s gun, when it suddenly went off. The bullet slammed into the floor just centimetres from the foot of Kevin Lerena, an up-and-coming heavyweight boxer. “The KO Kid,” as he is known, would later explain to reporters that the pistol’s safety catch had somehow snagged on Pistorius’s pants, and that the world’s most famous disabled sprinter had been more than contrite. “He apologized to me for days afterwards,” said Lerena. But when the restaurant manager hurried over to determine the source of the ear-shattering explosion, everyone at the table denied knowledge. And none of the other patrons came forward, so the police were never called. Being a national hero and internationally recognized celebrity apparently buys one a lot of leeway in South Africa.
But Pistorius’s next gun incident could hardly be swept under the table. Early in the morning of Feb. 14, the 26-year-old pumped four shots through a locked toilet door at his mansion in a high-security gated community outside the city, striking Steenkamp three times. Minutes later, she would die in his arms.
Pistorius’s version is that he awoke in the dark, heard a noise and concluded that an intruder was in the house. Arming himself, he hobbled into the bathroom on the stumps of his legs, and when his shouts went unanswered, opened fire. It was only when he returned to the bedroom and noticed that his 29-year-old girlfriend was missing that the truth dawned.
The police contend it was premeditated murder. Neighbours saw the lights on and heard the pair fighting, they say. Ballistics evidence shows the shots were fired downward, suggesting the athlete was wearing his prostheses at the time. And he has a history of violent and threatening behaviour, including past allegations of domestic assault.
It was just seven months ago, during the London 2012 Games, that Pistorius was being feted as a global inspiration for becoming the first amputee to compete in an Olympic track event. That the seven-time Paralympic medallist wasn’t nearly as fast as the hype predicted, finishing last in his 400-m semifinal, hardly mattered. The media, and public, couldn’t get enough of the polite and modest South African who shattered so many stereotypes. So too with sponsors like Nike, Oakley sunglasses, and French designer Thierry Mugler, who had already signed the photogenic Pistorius to endorsement deals totalling more than $2 million a year. Lately, he had been tooling around Johannesburg in a new silver convertible MP4-12C Spider McLaren supercar, worth $405,000. Although, as always, he refused to avail himself of the handicapped-parking spaces.
Now, he is suddenly notorious. Within hours of his arrest, M-Net, a South African TV broadcaster, starting pulling down Pistorius’s image from its billboards. Nike, Oakley and other sponsors have all cancelled their contracts. His bail hearing—where, unlike in Canada, all the evidence could be published—quickly degenerated into an O.J. Simpson-style legal circus, much to the delight of the crush of international media packed into Pretoria Magistrates Court. (An electrician was kept on standby, lest the straining air-conditioning system short out and plunge the building into darkness.)
With his father, sister and brother sitting behind him, Pistorius wept frequently during the week of hearings. Yet Steenkamp’s family, who stayed away, complained that, beyond a bouquet of flowers, he has shown no inclination to explain himself to them. In a two-hour oral ruling delivered Feb. 22, Desmond Nair, the chief magistrate, found fault with the sloppy police investigation of the killing (the lead detective has been removed from the case after it emerged that he himself is facing attempted murder charges for indiscriminately firing his gun at a minibus during a car chase). But Nair also underlined the wide gaps in logic in the runner’s tale of how he came to kill his girlfriend. Still, before setting Pistorius free on $115,000 bail and under condition that he surrender his passport, abstain from alcohol and possess no guns, Nair granted one of the country’s most famous sons a further favour, clearing photographers and camera operators from the room. The click of shutters and flash bursts every time he stood in the dock was too distracting and humilitating, the magistrate said, as though Pistorius were “some kind of species the world has never seen before.” It was as if the judge hadn’t been keeping up with the news.
There was one rule above all others in the house where Oscar Pistorius grew up: no one was allowed to say “I can’t.” It applied to his older brother, Carl. It applied to his little sister, Aimee. And it applied, surely a little unfairly at times, to Oscar.
After he was born without fibula, a bone that runs from below the knee to the ankle, in both his legs, Oscar underwent a double amputation just below the knees at the age of 11 months. It wasn’t the only route—a series of reconstructive surgeries was also an option—but it was the one his parents, Henke and Sheila, judged to be the surest path to a normal life. So Oscar learned to walk on his stumps, began running on his first set of prostheses at 17 months, and has never really slowed down since.
His autobiography, Blade Runner, penned in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when he was just barely in his 20s, describes a childhood that would put most able-bodied kids to shame: long family hikes through the South African wilderness, epic bike rides and pretty much every other activity under the sun, from go-karting to water-skiing. Raised in a sports-mad culture and by an apparently barking-mad father—Henke made Oscar’s weekly allowance dependent on doing gymnastics and gave him his first set of dumbbells at age 4—Oscar had little choice but to embrace all types of physical activity. By the time he was 6 in 1992, he was playing tennis and cricket—and wrestling competitively, where for once his heavy artificial legs provided an advantage, anchoring him to the mat. Grappling gave him his first trip to the top of the podium. “The first time you win an award is an unforgettable moment,” Pistorius wrote. “You are enveloped in a warm buzz of emotions—pride, happiness and the acute sense of recognition that comes from applause from your loved ones. It is addictive, almost like a drug—but a positive drug, pushing you forward to greater success.”
It was the same year his parents divorced. For a time, money was tight—Henke, a mine owner, had declared bankruptcy—but Oscar and his siblings remained members of the privileged class, attending top-drawer schools in their hometown of Johannesburg. And Oscar followed Carl to Pretoria Boys High School, an elite English-language boarding school with six rugby fields, two cricket pitches, separate pools for swimming and water polo and its own shooting range. He was just 15 when Sheila, a nurturing and religious woman who used to leave notes with bits of scripture or poetry in her kids’ lunch boxes, died from a drug reaction following surgery. (On his right arm, he has her birth and death dates tattooed in Roman numerals, and on his back, a further memorial, a verse from 1 Corinthians, which begins, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.”) “Sports was my salvation,” Pistorius wrote, as he committed himself even more fiercely to water polo and rugby. But it wasn’t until he injured a knee playing the latter that he ever considered track.
Oscar Pistorius at his high school in 2005. (Getty Images)
Counselled by his doctor to take up sprinting as part of his rehab, Oscar found he had an aptitude—and, running on purpose-built carbon fibre blades, speed to burn. After just three weeks of training, he ran his first-ever 100-m race in January 2004, beating a field of two-legged high schoolers with a time of 11.72 seconds. The result became even more impressive when his father did some research on the Net and discovered that Oscar had shattered the world record for double amputees by almost half a second. Within a month, he had shaved another two-tenths off the mark. The story proved irresistible to the South African media. Soon Pistorius was starring in a TV commercial, had scored an endorsement deal with a prosthesis maker and was able to buy a car.
He dominated at the South African Disabled Games, his first-ever competition against other amputees, and secured a spot on the team for that fall’s Paralympics in Athens. In his debut race on the world stage, the 100-m, he captured a bronze. But it was his performance in the 200-m that really got people talking. After falling in the heats and barely squeaking into the final, he was particularly nervous in the blocks and was the last to react when the starter’s gun went off. But despite spotting the rest of the field—all of them single amputees—almost two seconds, Pistorius managed to reel them in and take the gold in a world-record time of 21.97. He returned home to South Africa a national hero. He was just 17.
As his times steadily improved over the next couple of years, Pistorius let it be known that he had a new goal: to become the first amputee to run at the Olympics. The international media started to take notice of the cocky kid with the made-for-headlines nickname. And so did track’s governing body, the IAAF, which commissioned a scientific study to determine whether his carbon blades were giving him some sort of artificial advantage. The January 2008 report concluded he used 25 per cent less effort to move his lightweight lower limbs than able-bodied athletes, as well as gaining a significant advantage in flexibility and energy transfer. He was banned from regular track and field competitions.
Pistorius appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and managed to have the decision overturned. (The scientists had done their calculations on the basis of him running at top speed in a straight line, not factoring in the significant disadvantages he faced at the start and when rounding corners, which made his blades a net wash.) But the reversal came too late for him to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. At the Paralympics that September, he won gold in the 100-m, 200-m and 400-m, setting world records in each event. His accomplishments, and the controversy surrounding them, had made Oscar Pistorius not just a famous disabled athlete, but one of the most bankable sporting figures in the world.
For those now trying to build the case that pride indeed comes before the fall, Exhibit A is probably Vesta and Valcan, Oscar’s pet white tigers, purchased at a cost of $45,000 each, because the animal he really wanted—a cheetah—makes a lousy pet. (Pistorius kept them on a game reserve near his home and visited regularly until they became too big to play with. In the run-up to London, he reportedly sold them to an unnamed Canadian zoo.) Or maybe the hubris can be traced even further back to a 2008 CD entitled Olympic Dreams, featuring two original spoken-word tracks, as well as disco remixes of songs he found inspirational. Or more recently, there are the multiple homes, stable of thoroughbred horses, business ventures—including a company that services Ferraris—and his own growing collection of flashy cars and powerful motorcycles.
It would certainly have been easy enough for Pistorius to develop a sense of entitlement, or inflated importance, based on the way he was routinely treated by the press. Back in 2008, even before the Beijing Games, Time placed him on its list of 100 most influential people, alongside Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey in the “heroes and pioneers” category. The BBC has named him its sports personality of the year, GQ has rated him among the best-dressed men in the world, and a South African magazine once declared him the country’s “sexiest” celebrity.
And there has been no shortage of beautiful women on his arm—almost all of them blond swimsuit models. Sometimes the relationships have been volatile. In his 2008 autobiography, Pistorius devoted considerable ink to Vicky Miles, a girl he started dating in high school and had recently broken up with, recalling how he surprised her one Valentine’s Day by leaving 200 balloons outside her house and painting “I Love You Tiger” on the road. But he also wrote of their “fiery” rows, including one meltdown over the phone after which he resolved to drive all night from Durban to Johannesburg to patch things up—a distance of 650 km. He ended up falling asleep at the wheel and plowing his car into a guardrail.
And since Steenkamp’s killing, other darker stories have started to emerge. In 2009, Pistorius was jailed for 17 hours and charged with common assault after a friend of his then-girlfriend claimed he slammed a door on her. (The case was dropped and Pistorius, who claims it was an accident, is now suing her for $2.2 million in compensation for lost sponsorships.) Following the London Olympics, there was reportedly a spat with a wealthy TV producer over another one of his exes. When their paths crossed at a local racetrack, Pistorius threatened to break the man’s legs and got into a swearing match with one of his friends. The runner “is a different man from the image out there,” the friend later told the Star newspaper. “He carries a gun everywhere and I have seen him be controlling to women.” The woman in question, Samantha Taylor, told another paper Pistorius is the ultimate “player” and “certainly not what people think he is.” And following Steenkamp’s death, Taylor’s mother posted a message on Facebook that garnered a lot of attention: “I am so glad that Sammy is safe and sound and out of the clutches of that man—there were a few occasions where things could have gone wrong with her and his gun during the time they dated.”
And although private gun ownership is common in South Africa, a crime-riddled country with a militaristic past, much is suddenly being made with Pistorius’s open love of firearms. In his book, he devotes several pages to a 2006 incident in which he was detained at the Amsterdam airport after his artificial legs tested positive for gun powder residue. (He had spent a day shooting with friends a week before.) And the 9-mm pistol he kept in his bedroom seemed to have worked its way into almost every profile ever written about him. (Prior to London, he took a New York Times Magazine writer to the range and taught him to shoot.) Since his arrest, it has emerged that he had applied for permits for six more weapons, including a rifle and three shotguns in late January. And even his father Henke’s own embarrassing gun past has become tabloid fodder. In the early 1970s, he reportedly shot himself in the testicles while cleaning a revolver in the presence of a woman who went on to become Miss World. He wasn’t badly injured, but Henke’s friends still shake their heads. “You don’t hold your pistol between your legs when you’re cleaning it,” said one university chum.
Layer on the 2009 speedboat crash against a submerged pier that left the then-22-year-old Oscar in intensive care with two broken ribs and lacerations to his face that required 172 stitches, and you get the element of recklessness. (Although no charges were laid, police reportedly found many empty alcohol bottles aboard.) Or his strained relationship with Henke, who was briefly his manager at the start of his career, but is now relegated to the status of “mate,” for pathos. And all the elements that used to make Pistorius unique and interesting, but now seem to suggest a troubled and unhappy soul.
The runner’s personal journey has always somehow been imbued with larger meaning. In the wider world, and especially at home in South Africa, he stood as a symbol of perseverance and progress. “The story of a disfigured man rising above his own unfortunate history to shine heroically is in sync with the mythology of a country disfigured by apartheid,” Niren Tolsi, a columnist for Johannesburg’s Mail and Guardian wrote recently. So too now, with those who choose to embrace his shoot-first narrative of fear, which speaks to continuing problems of crime, inequality and racism.
At Pistorius’s alma mater, Pretoria Boys High, a slice of the colonial past where students wear khaki uniforms with knee-high green socks and address men as “sir” and women as “ma’am,” the shock waves are palpable. The school takes considerable pride in the many cricket players, rugby stars and other athletes it has nurtured over the years, displaying their plaques and awards and enshrining them in their own hall of fame. For the moment, the considerable tribute to Pistorius remains. But second master John Illsley, who has been on staff for over 20 years, says the school has already started to grapple with what might lie ahead. “We’re trying to get over the shock of an icon going from that status, to this.” The day after the shooting, Illsley led a special assembly to teach the boys to “appreciate the value of life.” It was an emotional gathering, he says.
For the moment, Pistorius remains free, living with an aunt and uncle in another gated mansion in a leafy suburb of Pretoria. His long-time coach has expressed hope that he will soon be able to return to the track and resume training. He needs “to get his mind kind of clear,” says Ampie Louw. “The sooner he can start working, the better.” As of yet, there are no plans for Pistorius to return to competition, but his lawyers are already campaigning to relax his bail conditions.
None of this is a comfort to the family of Reeva Steenkamp. Neither is the news—announced via a press release—of the sprinter’s intention to hold a “private memorial service” for his victim.
Pistorius has a life motto he cites frequently in interviews: “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.” And over the years, he has campaigned harder and more effectively than anyone to be judged by his deeds alone. Some months from now, he will be granted that wish. It’s just that the venue, audience and circumstances won’t be the ones he imagined.