A perp-walk photograph of Oscar Pistorius, accused of murder, his face shrouded by a hooded sweatshirt, provided a jarring contrast to a morning last August in London when he walked into the Olympic Stadium, waving to the applause of 80,000 spectators.
The ‘Blade Runner’ — he was called by his nickname over the public-address system. A man who overcame tremendous odds after being born in South Africa with no fibula bones in his lower legs, which were surgically removed below the knee when he was 11 months old.
And then Pistorius launched out of the starting blocks in the opening heats of the 400 metres, advancing to the semifinals, serving as an inspiration to many, continuing to blur the lines between abled and disabled.
“If something like that happens to you and you lose both legs, some people would give up,” Bryshon Nellum, a quarter-miler from the United States, said after the race. “For him to continue to run, it’s unbelievable. It’s amazing.”
Yet, both Pistorius’s career and his personal life were complicated. In the world of track and field, he was inspiring and polarising. Even as he ran in the Olympics, the debate continued about whether his carbon-fibre blades gave him an unfair advantage over other runners.
No less a figure than Michael Johnson, the retired world-record holder and two-time Olympic champion at 400m, said Pistorius, while a friend and a great ambassador, should not compete at the London Games.
Half a year later, on Valentine’s Day, Pistorius, 26, was accused of shooting to death his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. And we are reminded yet again that it becomes risky to equate sporting accomplishment with heroism and incorruptible behaviour.
Sport builds characters, sure, but does it really build character? How can we really expect to know these athletes, when they often give us a kind of fan dance — suggesting, but not fully revealing.
Pistorius certainly had a stirring and galvanising story to tell. At the London Games, he recounted a letter his mother Sheila, who died when he was 15, had written to him: “A loser isn’t the person that gets involved and comes last, but it’s the person that doesn’t get involved in the first place.”
Pistorius said: “It’s a mentality we’ve always had. When you start something, you do it properly.”
But his story was also a knotty one. A need for speed captivated Pistorius off the track as well as on. He liked fast cars and fast motorcycles and fast boats, and sometimes he veered toward recklessness.
In 2009, he wrecked a speedboat into a submerged pier along a South African river. The police said they found alcohol in the boat but did not immediately check Pistorius’s blood-alcohol level. He slammed into the steering wheel and fractured two ribs, his jaw and an eye socket.
In a profile last year in The New York Times Sunday Magzine, Michael Sokolove wrote of Pistorius’s risk-taking and described him as “a great deal of fun” and “more than a little crazy.”
The night before the interview with Sokolove, Pistorius said that his security alarm had sounded and that he grabbed a gun to check on a possible intruder. South Africa is one of the world’s most violent countries.
This time, there was nothing. Pistorius then took Sokolove to a shooting range with a 9-mm handgun, saying he went there “just sometimes when I can’t sleep.”
Pistorius has been charged with deliberate murder, not an inadvertent shooting. The South African police said they were surprised to hear news accounts that Pistorius had offered an intruder defence. They also said there had been previous complaints of a “domestic nature” at his home.
Late last year, according to South African news media reports, he reportedly threatened to break a man’s legs in an incident involving another woman. — New York Times News Service