Oscar Pistorius was 1 when his deformed legs were amputated, 6 when his parents divorced, 15 when his mother died. Life trained him to overcome adversity. And when he set world records running on artificial legs and competed in the London Olympics against able-bodied athletes, his story inspired the world.
Pistorius was a hero to the disabled, and to a nation struggling to develop into a modern democracy after decades of violence and racial oppression under apartheid. On Thursday, he plummeted from that pedestal, charged with murdering his girlfriend inside his home in South Africa.
The 26-year-old sports star had been dating Reeva Steenkamp, 30, a model about to debut on a reality television show, for a few months; she had tweeted her excitement about Valentine’s Day on Wednesday. When police arrived at Pistorius’s house in the middle of the night Thursday, they found Steenkamp with multiple gunshot wounds and took the Paralympic champion into custody.
It was a grim version of an all-too-familiar tale: the sudden fall of an athlete who helped others follow their dreams, whose impact far transcended his sport. Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, too, inspired millions, especially young African Americans and cancer survivors.
Each time one of these icons stumbles, it raises the question: Do we expect too much of them? Do we somehow set them up for these crashes?
Years of athletic training prepared Pistorius, who was born without fibula bones, to run at world-class speed on carbon-
fiber blades, but it may not have prepared him for sudden celebrity and wealth.
“He crossed a huge bridge by making it clear that people with disabilities could perform not just in classes of their own but in normal, world-class settings,” said Timothy Shriver, CEO of the Special Olympics.
Exactly what happened Thursday is unclear. The suspect and the victim were the only ones in the house, police said. Pistorius was formally charged with murder at a hearing Friday and any decision on bail was delayed until a separate hearing on Tuesday or Wednesday next week. Police said they would oppose bail.
Shriver said it is too soon to draw conclusions about the case. But, he said, young star athletes often have a hard time handling sudden “fame and attention and money.”
“What we have to ask ourselves about big-time sports more broadly is how we prepare great athletes for the responsibilities of leadership,” Shriver said. “And I don’t think we have good answers for that.”
Four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon said Pistorius’s name would have been the last to come to mind if someone had told him that a track athlete had been charged with murder. “Not the second-to-last, not the third-to-last,” the retired sprinter told the Associated Press. “The very last.” Pistorius, he said, “exudes class. He’s gracious. He’s humble.”
Known as the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius is a revered figure in South Africa. The nation roared for him during his historic appearance at the 2012 London Olympics, where he became the first double-amputee sprinter to compete.
But it was his personal story that turned him into the country’s most heroic figure since Nelson Mandela, said Justice Malala, a prominent political analyst and commentator in South Africa.
“In a country where the image of Mandela is starting to fade, we are always looking for a hero — and this guy was it,” Malala said. “He is a symbol of hope. He came along and said, ‘You can do it. You can do anything.’ And it really lifted people up, across racial lines.”
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.
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.”