Oscar Pistorius’s story was so incredible, so exceptional, that South Africa clung to his legend. Now come months of darkness and doubt

For us South Africans, and for many across the globe, it is impossible to watch Oscar Pistorius run without a stir of emotion, without wanting to break up and cry and shout with joy. Pistorius is no ordinary hero: he is that rare thing, a man with an almost-impossible narrative.

It is not a rags to riches story, a poor boy made good — we have many of those here and on the African continent. His story is more intense. To be without legs, and to become the epitome of excellence in the very field where you are not supposed to excel: that is the stuff of legends. That is why many of us here, when talking about Pistorius, take on the hyperbole of sportswriters. We like an impossible story.

And we loved him for it. We adored him. Black or white, athletics-loving or not, his was a story that inspired a country that is quick to cleave along racial lines. He shattered those barriers. He was just what he was: the Blade Runner, the hero. As a testament to his place in our psyche, on our roads massive billboards smiled down on us, reminding us of the man who had achieved the impossible. It is the stuff of goosebumps.

Those posters and billboards were being pulled down on Thursday, February 14. Pistorius, hero, had gone from being a figure of sympathy in the morning — when stories went viral that the shooting of a woman at his house may have been a case of mistaken identity — to being accused of murder in the evening as police revealed there were reports of shouting at his house the evening before.

It is all too early to tell. The story changed by the hour on Thursday, and will continue to change as Pistorius made a first appearance in court on Friday and investigations continue. We will not know whether he is guilty or innocent for some months yet.

What we know is that a hero is fallen, and on Thursday you could see the effect of that on South Africa: political animals like me forgot, for hours on end, that the President of the country was about to give his state of the nation address in the evening; lovers turned away from soppy Valentine’s Day celebrations. It was Oscar all the way.

Signs of cracks

Why, though? There have always been niggling, worrying, features to Pistorius. At the London Olympics last year, when he behaved in an unsportsmanlike manner towards another athlete and shocked many, we were reminded of his flaws. On Thursday, many were mining his Twitter account and previous newspaper reports about him. There was the gun by the bedside and the rifle by the window seen by British journalists years ago. There was the tweet describing how he walked into his house, thought there was a burglar and went into “recon mode.” There was the drinking and the short temper.

In the morning, though, when the story first broke, there was no touching Oscar.

His model girlfriend — a sign of status among jock sportsmen — was coming in to give him a Valentine’s surprise, went the story. Many would not dare contemplate the alternative. It reminds one how we South Africans refused to believe that Hansie Cronje could be other than the gentleman cricketer so many thought he was.

In a country of very few heroes, particularly those who transcend the always-present colour line, we do not want them to flicker and die. So we clung to that narrative.

The truth, however, is that South Africa is a country of violence. We have often been labelled the “crime capital of the world,” and many like Pistorius armed themselves, supposedly to protect themselves from burglars and robbers. Last week, the country was in mourning after a 17-year-old girl died after being gang-raped. It is who we are. Perhaps that is why we could not accept, in the morning at least, that “one of us” might have pulled the trigger — with tragic consequences.

Worse, he is not just one of us. When our Olympics team was in the doldrums at the Games, we knew one truth: Oscar Pistorius would redeem us. He ran his guts out, and did. And now he is fallen, and we are lost.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013