Oscar Pistorius: The boy who fought the odds to inspire millions
The South African hero was arrested by police yesterday after allegedly shooting dead his girlfriend
Daniel Howden is Africa Correspondent for The Independent. He has reported from more than 50 countries covering everything from wars and elections to natural disasters and environmental crises. Special interests beyond Africa include southeast Europe, Latin America and global forests. A former Athens correspondent he has returned to Greece regularly during the European debt crisis. Now based in Nairobi, he acted as producer on the documentary 'Stolen Seas: Tales of Somali Piracy', winner of the Boccalino D'Oro prize at the 2012 Locarno film festival.
Friday 15 February 2013
It was at London's Paralympics last summer when Oscar Pistorius's mask first slipped.
The South African sprinter, whose heroic effort to compete against able-bodied athletes had seen him take part in the Olympics themselves the month before, responded to his first ever defeat in a 200m final by rounding on the man who had beaten him. “We aren't racing a fair race,” he complained.
Pistorius, the poster boy with the brilliant smile, accused Brazilian victor Alan Oliveira of cheating by using longer prosthetic blades than his own, and even implied that he may have been getting a boost by other means. Considering his own battles with those who have accused him of gaining an unfair advantage from his carbon-fibre prosthetics it was a graceless reaction. It was also the first time public at large caught a glimpse of what many closer observers had known for some time: that the Blade Runner had a furious temper.
Yesterday, the South African police charged Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius with murder after his girlfriend was found dead at his home in Pretoria. While sponsors rushed to tear down billboards bearing his image and broadcasters dropped him from their schedules, there was a broader feeling that the media had ignored a darker side to the first Paralympic icon.
The confusion of man and myth has been obvious since he first entered the public conscience back in 2007 and threatened to bridge the divide between Paralympic and Olympic competition by sheer force of his performance.
Tom Hanks started bidding for the film rights to the story of the young South African with the J-shaped prosthetics. The plot was compelling: the first double-amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes in an Olympic Games, who was listed in 2012 by Time magazine among the world’s 100 most influential people.
It was an unlikely accomplishment for a boy born without fibulae, whose parents Henke and Sheila had to make the agonising decision to amputate their 11-month-old sons legs below the knee in October 1987.
By the age of 16, with the help of his prosthetics, he was playing competitive sport at school. Then a serious knee injury on the rugby field in 2003 put him into rehabilitation and on a path that would peak at the top of the rostrum in Athens, where he won Paralympic gold a year later.
Pistorius’s pursuit of able-bodied elite athletes made him a global phenomenon, pushing back the boundaries of disability and capturing the imagination of a world willing him to catch up with them. The commercial rewards for his global profile were considerable – he earned sponsorship deals said to be worth $2m a year with corporate partners from Nike to BT, Oakley and even French fashion house Thierry Mugler.
His fame peaked in London last July, where he reached the semi-finals of the Olympic 400m and the final of the 4 x 400m relay. “As I came out of the tunnel, I saw my friends and family, including my grandmother with the South African flag,” he said. “On the blocks, I didn’t know whether I should cry or be happy.”
September’s outburst at Oliveira tarnished his image and forced him to issue a public apology. But he seemed to have recovered his fairytale touch on the final day of the London games, when he won the 400m and earned a standing ovation from the 80,000 crowd. He beat his nemesis over 200m by a huge margin.
However, back home in South Africa there were further indications of his combustible character when he hit the headlines in December after allegedly threatening to break the legs of businessman Quinton van der Burgh, whom he reportedly accused of an illicit tryst with a girl Pistorius had also been seeing.
Deeply religious, Pistorius has a verse from Corinthians tattooed on his left shoulder: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. I execute each strike with intent. I beat my body and make it my slave...”
He also has the date of his mother’s death in 2002 tattooed on the inside of an arm and credits her stridently positive attitude with his rejection of self-pity and athletic drive: “There wasn’t much scope for me to think about my disability as a disadvantage or to pity myself.”
Another more complex character has been evident behind his against all odds exterior. Friends had warned that his risk-taking and sleeplessness have seemed out of control. In 2009 he was lucky to survive and was accused of reckless and negligent diriving after crashing his speedboat. A motorbike accident left one of his famed prosthetics hanging from a barbed wire.
When a visiting writer from The New York Times admitted to him two years ago that he had not shot a weapon, gun enthusiast Mr Pistorius took him to the shooting range where he said he would sometimes go at night when he could not sleep. The athlete mentioned to him that when his house alarm rang at night he would tip-toe downstairs with his 9mm pistol. Later, pleased with his journalist pupil's progress the runner told him: “If you practiced, I think you could be pretty deadly.”
The South African's tumultuous romantic life has been a staple of local gossip pages but some incidents went largely unreported. While no charges were pressed police sources said they were aware of at least one other complaint of “abuse” from a young woman who had been dating the athlete. Yesterday as he languished in the holding cells of Pretoria police station, officials said that it was not the first time they had been called on to the track star's Silverwoods residence.
There had been an unspecified number of other incidents “of a domestic nature”, they revealed.
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