Pistorius' once-heartening tale now interlaced with murder, violence
Early on February 14, news broke that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, known for being the first double amputee to compete in track and field events at the Olympic Games, was arrested for shooting and killing a woman who was later revealed to be his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. SI.com catches up with senior writer David Epstein, who has covered Pistorius for several years, for some insight on the situation.
"It definitely didn't come from South African police service," according to Brigadier Denise Beukes of the South African Police Service. Beukes also said that a 26-year-old man at the house -- Pistorius is 26, and only he and Steenkamp were believed to be at the residence -- has been arrested and charged with murder, and that "the state will be opposing bail."
Again, we should be cautious to reach conclusions, but that would seem to suggest that the police are not currently treating the case as one of self-defense. Beukes also said that police were talking to neighbors who "heard things" in the hours prior to the shooting, but declined to elaborate on what "things" might have been heard.
Pistorius lives in a large house in a gated community, so it seems reasonable that for any sounds to reach neighbors they would have to be rather loud. According to a source in South Africa who I just spoke with, the neighbors heard yelling before the shots were fired, as well as the previous night. Lastly, initial reports indicate no obvious signs of forced entry, although forensic examination is ongoing.
According to an athlete I spoke with this morning who trained with Pistorius several years ago, the so-called Blade Runner lives in an upscale community that is protected by a gate and security guard out front.
"Even to get in you've got to go through security," the athlete said. "The house isn't walled in the front. If you're inside the community, you could feasibly get into the house, but you'd have to get through the front gate."
Gate and security alarm aside, Pistorius did still feel at risk at times. I've talked to him a number of times over the years, and several times the massive gulf in socioeconomic status between classes in South Africa came up. As the athlete who trained with Pistorius told me: "Security was definitely a big issue," he said. "When I was there I would notice he would take safety precautions. There were places he didn't want to go."
It is not unusual for an individual in South Africa to own firearms, and electric fences are not uncommon. In a
So far, however, the initial reports that Pistorius mistook his girlfriend for an intruder are of unclear sourcing, and the South African police are proceeding with a murder investigation.
According to a source I spoke with in South Africa, the Pistorius news has been on a continuous loop. The source also said that the initial report that Pistorius believed he was facing an intruder "has stuck, despite it seeming unlikely that it is true." The source added that, currently, "in South Africa, most people are sympathizing with him." (Still, billboards with Pistorius's face were already being taken down in Johannesburg Thursday.) In any case, I think it's clear, that this story will also take on an even larger life.
First of all, Pistorius is well-known in the U.S. as the heartwarming protagonist in a tale of a man who refused to let a disability hinder his athletic ambitions.
So, no matter how this case is adjudicated, I think there will be a deeper than normal dismay. This has been a year full of more looks behind the curtain at the double lives of elite athletes than I think anybody would have expected, and now we have a tragic turn in what many people considered to be an unalloyed positive story.
Also, most Americans probably don't realize how big of a celebrity Pistorius is in South Africa. He is on billboards and in major ad campaigns. At the London Olympics, I spoke briefly with Pistorius about his thoroughbred horses, and he previously owned white tigers. A friend of his told me that back in 2009, Pistorius was invited to be a judge in the Miss South Africa pageant -- and Pistorius is much bigger now, after his 2012 Olympics appearance.
These types of things do not tend to be in the current orbit of American track and field athletes, so I think American sports fans may not grasp Pistorius' star power in his homeland. Even with the State of the Nation address tonight, I expect this to dominate South African news.
As South African police have confirmed, there have been previous allegations of domestic disputes at Pistorius' home. In 2009, Pistorius was arrested for assault when he slammed a door on a woman. He spent the night in police custody, but friends portrayed it as an accident and the charges were dropped.
With the media, Pistorius was preternaturally placid, but according to one of Pistorius' acquaintances, "he liked fast cars and things. He's got that side to him too." Most infamously, in February 2009 Pistorius crashed his boat and had to be airlifted to a hospital. Copious quantities of alcohol were found onboard the boat. This sparked speculation that Pistorius may have been piloting while impaired. According to past interviews I conducted with acquaintances of Pistorius, the athlete enjoyed nights of drinking and partying, but that after the accident he began to take a more serious approach to his health and training. Pistorius told me as much himself in 2011 when he visited New York City for a race. He admitted to living more recklessly than he should, and had overhauled his diet and said he was changing his lifestyle to one that befit an elite athlete.
Still, news reports of drunken or impolite public behavior
Again, whether the facts bear this out to be a murder or an accident, it's a tremendous tragedy. Even if it's an accident, Reeva Steenkamp is dead. And at a moment like this, I don't want to make any hard analogies to particular stories this year, but I think for anyone who follows sports it has been a year chock full of tragic turns to what initially served as narratives of inspiration. And even if it turns out that Pistorius thought Steenkamp was an intruder and shot her, the story is forever changed.
In 2011 when he was in a New York City working out for a major race the next day, he stopped his own practice to give running tips to a young man who had just had both lower legs amputated and who was struggling to balance on his new carbon fiber blades. There were no cameras or other reporters there that day, and I only happened upon it, so I know it was not set up for media.
Even though I wrote about Pistorius critically, and gave voice to scientists who were critical of the work that allowed him to compete, I think we all agreed on the inspirational value of his spirit. No matter what comes out of this, that story is forever changed.