South Africa is used to shocks, but not like this. Early yesterday morning, as news spread that its favourite celebrity – the handsome, athletic and heroic Oscar Pistorius – had been arrested for shooting his beautiful girlfriend, South Africans of every race, creed or birth stopped whatever they were doing to gape open-mouthed. Only the news of Nelson Mandela’s death could have challenged Oscar on the Richter Scale, and even then Oscar would probably have taken the gold.
Long before he had become one of the faces of the London Olympics last summer, Pistorius was a hero in his native land, his celebrity status extending far beyond the boundaries of sport. He was variously depicted as sex symbol, fashion icon, celebrity and national treasure. He had won more awards than he had gold medals, many of them outside South Africa and sport: honorary doctorates (including Strathclyde University), the BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s Helen Rollason Award, Time magazine’s “Time 100” list as one of the most influential people in the world, and so on. Above all, he was seen as a nice man, unaffected by fame and fortune, who had shrugged off the small disability of having no legs to become the holder of a whole slew of world records.
But last year, in London, he moved into the stratosphere as he took part in both the Olympics and the Paralympics and was taken to the hearts of billions of spectators all over the world who cheered his every heat. In one short summer, he probably did more for Paralympic sports than anyone in history, as he beat his own best times and raked in the gold. By then, he had become what one writer called “that rarity in sport – an athlete who is almost universally liked, even loved”. Another described him as “a pioneer for a new wave of change – for disability in able-bodied sport, fashion and advertising”.
Half of South Africa, many of whom had never watched athletics before, turned out to welcome him home. At a time when South Africa badly needed a hero, here he was, the perfect one. It didn’t even matter that he was white – Oscar transcended race.
The international media was yesterday describing South Africa as a nation “stunned, almost to the point of disbelief”, and I confess I was as stunned as anyone. Shortly after his triumphant return, I met Pistorius at a dinner in Cape Town given by a magazine for which he was doing a fashion shoot. He had been in the studio all day, and was still dressed in designer suit, tailored shirt and buffed shoes. Faces turned, necks craned and there was spontaneous applause in the restaurant as he walked through to the private room at the back. But he was unphased by it, smiling a modest, almost humble, smile. Other than a slight tilt and roll, he walked and stood perfectly normally, and if you had not known who he was, you’d never have guessed that this was Bladerunner himself – or, as he jestingly called himself, the “fastest man on no legs”.
When I remarked that we had half-expected to see him wearing his blades, or a less sporting version of them, he offered to show me the feet he wore in normal life, obligingly bending down to lift the leg of his trousers. They looked perfectly ordinary to me but I hastily moved the conversation on to safer ground, and asked him about the high points of the Games for him. He reckoned it was the closing stages of the semi-finals of the 400 metres when 80,000 people stood and shouted his name.
A different Oscar
“They were so loud,” Pistorius recalled. “It was deafening on the track. It made me feel how blessed I was to be out there.” I learnt later that “being blessed” was a favourite phrase of his, often used in his tweets and interviews, but it seemed just right that evening.
After that, I think I lost this soft-spoken, elaborately polite, handsome man to the women around the table, all of whom wanted a piece of him. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such envy as I did the next morning when I told people who I’d had dinner with. For those few weeks, Oscar probably held the title of “the man I would most like to meet”. I felt privileged that I had – and greatly impressed with the man I had met.
Yesterday, a different Oscar Pistorius began to emerge, and it is this Oscar who has plunged the nation into its state of shock. It seems that he might not have been this paragon we all thought – and hoped – he might be. The flash of anger we saw when he was beaten in the Paralympics 100 metres may not, after all, have been an isolated one but more typical of a man nearer to the edge of violence than anyone suspected. It turns out he was a crack shot with a pistol, had threatened potential rivals for his girlfriends’ affections, and stories began tumbling out about his treatment of former girlfriends. I suspect that worse is to come.
Shock is now giving way to sadness and a deep feeling of tragedy. Adulation is turning to anger. For an all-too-brief moment, Oscar Pistorius was the brightest star in the South African galaxy, diverting attention away from striking miners and corrupt government ministers. Alas, that star blinked out in a plush townhouse in Pretoria.
Ivan Fallon is a South Africa-based media executive and former Chief Executive of Independent News & Media, previous owners of The Independent