Dani Garavelli: Oscar Pistorius - fallen hero
TO UNDERSTAND what drove Oscar Pistorius to sporting glory, his friends say, you have to understand the relationship he had with his mother.
To Sheila, a school guidance counsellor, Pistorius was never “disabled”. From the moment he had both legs amputated at the knee at the age of 11 months (he was born without a fibula in either) he was expected just to get on with his life.
He loved to tell how she’d say “put on your shoes,” to his older brother Carl and “put on your legs,” to him, as if his prostheses were just another accoutrement and certainly no excuse for slacking. At the age of five, Pistorius ran into school with all the other pupils and never looked back. In his time there, he excelled at water polo, tennis, rugby and even wrestling. Legend has it that on one occasion, when his leg came off as his rival tackled him during a rugby match, he kept on going until he made it over the line. He was that kind of sportsman.
In many ways Pistorius’ life was the perfect back story for an athlete in South Africa, a country where disadvantage is endemic. Already a hero, his successes at the London Olympics and Paralympics turned him into an international icon. Polished, congenial, but with just enough “edge” to keep him interesting, the Blade Runner was not only a gift to corporations such as Nike, but the ideal ambassador for a country that needed all the good publicity it could get.
But last week, South Africans woke up to the news that Pistorius’ reign as poster boy for disability was over. What happened in his Pretoria home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day has yet to be established, but what is clear is that by the time the emergency services responded to calls to the gated community of Silver Lakes, his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a model, law graduate, activist and reality TV star, had been shot four times in the head, chest and pelvis.
Early reports that Pistorius, who like many in South Africa kept a gun by his bed, had mistaken her for a burglar after she had crept into his house to surprise him, were played down by police who said they’d been called out to previous domestic incidents. Within the space of a few minutes, Steenkamp, who just days earlier had tweeted in support of Anene Booysen, a woman who had been gang raped and murdered, had become another victim of the country’s rising tide of violence; and Pistorius, whose swapping of race numbers with Kirani James after the 400m semi-final was one of the enduring images of the 2012 games, had been reduced from a sporting legend to a hunched and hooded figure on a murder rap.
To many who knew Pistorius through athletics, or through the charitable work he did with the Mineseeker Foundation for children with disabilities, the idea Pistorius could be guilty of such a crime was unthinkable. The journalists who met him when he competed in the Scottish National Championships at Pitreavie, in 2009, or the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last year had encountered a man, who contrary to their expectations was neither full of himself nor smarmy. “We all talked about how charming and selfless he seemed,” says sports writer Stuart Bathgate. “The word he used all the time about himself was ‘blessed’, he was always encouraging people to count their blessings and not waste any time.”
No sooner had Pistorius been arrested, however, than testimony of a different sort started to emerge. Tweets in which he expressed his love of guns began to surface; a night he spent in a police cell after a woman was injured at his house was revisited and his ex-girlfriend Samantha Taylor’s comment that “Oscar is not what people think he is,” was invested with new meaning. And, of course, everyone recalled the one flash of anger which shocked observers at the London Paralympics; overtaken in the final stretch of the 200m metres final, he hit out at Brazil’s Alan Oliveira effectively accusing him of cheating by wearing longer blades.
Could it be that lurking below Pistorius’ affable exterior, there was always a latent aggression? Or that in our desire to champion a man who had overcome so much, we turned a blind eye to his flaws?
Not since OJ Simpson was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown, has a tragedy involving a sportsman so gripped the world. If anything, Pistorius’ story is the more shocking because, having overcome a host of challenges, he was at the height of his sporting success and his celebrity.
A Christian, Pistorius may feel “blessed”, but his early life was far from easy. His disability may not have held him back, but his parents’ divorce when he was six undermined his relationship with his father, Henke (who nevertheless sat through his first court appearance last week), and the sudden death of his mother from an allergic reaction to a drug when he was 15 deprived him of his greatest ally. A rugby injury suffered a year later could also have floored him, but he simply took up a new sport – athletics. His mother’s maxim – “The real loser is never the one who crosses the finishing line last, but the person who stands on the side” – drove him on, particularly when he was disqualified from competing alongside able-bodied athletes in 2007 because experts said his blades gave him an unfair advantage.
Even then, when it was being suggested his speed was the product not of skill or hard work, but of technology, Pistorius, who won his first gold medal at the age of 17 in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, was a model of magnanimity. Of course, it was right to challenge him, he said. He wouldn’t want to compete unless it were on a level playing field.
Eventually the ban was overturned. Having failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, he made it to the London Olympics. Although he didn’t win any medals, his presence added glamour and changed perceptions of disability. At the Paralympics, he won two gold medals and a silver.
By then, of course, he was already a household name. In 2008, he was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Everest, described him as being “on the cusp of a paradigm shift in which disability becomes ability and disadvantage becomes advantage”.
Pistorius was the face of BT, Nike, Oakley and Thierry Mugler and star of reality TV shows including the Italian programme Ballendo Con le Stelle (Dancing with the Stars). The London games helped him consolidate his status as a global brand and his relationship with Steenkamp, an FHM model whose own career was set to go stellar, seemed to be the icing on the cake. Although they had been an item only a few months, they had already been called South Africa’s “Posh and Becks”.
Yet, all along, there have been undercurrents of volatility. Certainly, no one ever suggested Pistorius was dull. Unlike, say, Michael Phelps, whose Olympic success seems to have come at the expense of any kind of hinterland, his life was full of live-fast, die-young activities. When he wasn’t training or competing, he loved fast cars, motorcycles and speed boats. Despite his charity commitments and his endorsements – from which he earns more than $2 million (£1.2m) a year– he found time to dabble in several business ventures. He owns six racehorses, has been a partner in a company that services Ferraris and once bought two white African tigers, lodging them on a game reserve until they were too old to play with, at which point he sold them to a Canadian zoo.
There were always girls too, often models, almost always blonde. In between his two long-term partners, childhood sweetheart Vicky Miles and Taylor, there were others – Russian model Anastassia Khozissova, Jenna Edkins (who insists he never laid a finger on her) and Chanelle du Plessis. Sometimes they seemed to overlap, although it is difficult to say for sure.
Pistorius is, his friends say, a fun person to be around, but he is also a drinker and a risk-taker with an unpredictable temperament that has long troubled those charged with keeping him under control. He drives too fast – a journalist who was a passenger in his Nissan GT-R described peeking at the speedometer to discover they were travelling at 155mph – and struggles to sleep. A tattoo on his back, a Biblical quotation which begins, “I run not like a man who runs aimlessly”, is apparently the legacy of an early morning excursion into SoHo, New York.
The threat his thrill-seeking could pose to himself became clear in 2009 when he crashed his speed boat into a submerged pier in the Vaal River, an accident which left him in a coma for three days and needing more than 170 stitches to his face. Alcohol was said to have been found in the wreckage.
If Pistorius posed a threat to others, though, the signs were more subtle. There was his description of his relationship with Miles as “very fiery”. “We rowed a lot,” he said. And, of course, there was his interest in guns. One journalist, who visited his house saw an arsenal of weapons – a baseball bat, a 9mm handgun, a machine gun – in Pistorius’ bedroom.
Some have tried to pass this off as par for the course in a violent country in the grip of paranoia, but others have read them as a symptom of a deeper fascination, which surfaced when he used social media. “Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode,” he tweeted in November.
It wasn’t until after the London games, however, that the first hint of any real malevolence began to manifest itself. Hindsight can have a distorting effect, but it’s easy, in the light of last week’s tragedy, to conclude that, even as Pistorius’ life seemed to be reaching its zenith, it was starting to unravel.
Not long after he returned from the games, he was said to have threatened to break the legs of former football player Mark Batchelor in a row over an unnamed girlfriend’s suspected infidelity. Then, when his relationship with Steenkamp became public, Taylor suggested he would be seeing other women and threatened to reveal what he’d “put her through” (a threat she quickly retracted).
Many people dismissed Taylor as a woman scorned, but last week, after Pistorius was charged, her mother took to Facebook to say she was glad her daughter was out of his clutches.
Pistorius and Steenkamp, on the other hand, seemed pretty loved-up. Judging by her twitter account, Steenkamp was looking forward to them spending Valentine’s Day together. “What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow?” she asked her followers. Yet reports from South Africa suggest neighbours heard screaming and shouting before the shots were fired and the police said they had been called to previous domestic incidents at the house. On Friday, Pistorius, his self-composure gone, sobbed as he “strongly denied” the murder charge.
In the past, South Africa has been forgiving of its fallen heroes. In 2004, Hansie Cronje was voted 11th greatest national of all time despite having been disgraced in a match-fixing scandal. But this is different. Steenkamp died a terrible death at a time when women across the world, and particularly in South Africa, are confronting violence through the One Billion Rising campaign. Booysen’s murder prompted Steenkamp to write: “I woke up in a happy, safe home this morning. Not everyone did.”
Steenkamp’s death suggests violence against women spans class and racial divides. Whatever the outcome of the trial, Pistorius’ flame has been extinguished. He may have done more than any other athlete to revolutionise our view of disability, but he will forever be defined by the tragedy which played out under his roof.
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