Ancilla Smith, a spokeswoman for Special Olympics in South Africa, said South Africans identified with Pistorius because “he has become a symbol of overcoming adversity, which is pretty much what South Africa is all about.”
The sight of Pistorius, hiding his face in the hood of his sweatshirt on his way out of a police station Thursday, “rocked the country,” Smith said.
“The reverberations are enormous,” she said.
Early Thursday, reports circulated in the South African media that Pistorius mistakenly shot Steenkamp thinking she was a burglar. Other reports said the shooting occurred after a loud argument.
Crime and violence remain huge problems in South Africa. Even in middle-class neighborhoods, many people live in gated communities behind electrified fences and high walls, fearing intruders. Gun ownership is common. And violence against women is rampant; the country is still reeling from an incident last week in which a 17-year-old girl was gang-raped and killed.
Pistorius won gold and bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. He began competing internationally against able-bodied athletes in 2007. Other athletes soon complained that his carbon-fiber Cheetah prosthetic blades gave him an unfair advantage.
International sporting officials ruled in Pistorius’s favor in 2008, but not in time for him to compete in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. At the Paralympic Games that year, he won three gold medals.
In London in 2012, he won two golds and a silver at the Paralympic Games. And he competed for the first time in the Olympic Games, running for South Africa in the 4X400-meter relay; he did not win a medal.
He holds two Paralympic world records and is tied for a third.
“Oscar has very much been the poster boy for the Paralympic movement since 2008,” said Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee. “He’s changed perceptions so much of what can be achieved by an athlete with disabilities.”
Spence said that while Pistorius was competing in the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008, a young man named Jonnie Peacock was watching in his living room in Britain. Peacock, who lost his right leg as a boy, was inspired to begin training. In the Games in London, he beat Pistorius in the 100-meter race.
Fame and troubles
Pistorius is a wealthy man, with lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike and other companies. He traveled and gave motivational speeches. His face is on advertising posters, some of which were being taken down in South Africa.
In February 2009, Pistorius was involved in a boat accident in South Africa that left him with broken ribs, a broken jaw and a shattered eye socket. Last November, he and another man were involved in an altercation about a woman that required police intervention, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
More recently, police had been called to Pistorius’s home to handle incidents involving “allegations of a domestic nature,” a police spokeswoman told reporters.
Some professional sports organizations provide extensive counseling for young athletes who find themselves wealthy literally overnight. The NBA, for example, has extensive counseling programs, including one to help rookie players deal with the enormous new stresses they suddenly face.
“I think a lot of athletes are prepared to win in golf or cycling or track and field,” Shriver said. “They spend their whole lives preparing for the goal of victory. But they don’t have much preparation for the role of global influencer.
“I think they leave the Olympics in a first-class seat with a lot of gold around their neck, lots of photographers snapping their picture,” he said. “And they get off the plane on the other end and they’re on their own.”