Reeva Steenkamp. The 29-year-old model/law school graduate/aspiring reality TV star was hardly anonymous, but her name comes first. In the wee morning hours of last Thursday—Valentine's Day—in Pretoria, South Africa, Steenkamp was shot in the head, hand, chest and pelvis, four times in all. She bled to death on the scene in the home of her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, 26, the first double-amputee to compete at the Olympics in track and field. At a court hearing on Friday, Pistorius sobbed as prosecutors indicated their plan to pursue a charge of premeditated murder, which carries with it a mandatory life sentence.
Pistorius—who was born without fibulas and runs on crescent-shaped carbon fiber blades—is an A-list celebrity in South Africa. He gets named to tabloids' "sexiest" lists, appears on billboards and is wealthy enough to have owned thoroughbreds and white tigers. In the hours after Steenkamp's death, the first story to take root was a case of mistaken identity. Pistorius, the narrative went, mistook his girlfriend for a burglar and shot her in self-defense. The origin of that account was unclear—"It definitely didn't come from South African police service," said police spokeswoman Denise Beukes—but for the first 24 hours, it stuck. A number of South Africans told SI that most people were sympathizing with the track star.
Pistorius's prior security concerns conferred an additional layer to the self-defense theory. Erison Hurtault, a U.S.-born Olympic sprinter for Dominica (a Caribbean island nation) who lived and trained with Pistorius in 2009, recalls that "security definitely was a big issue.... There were places he didn't want to go." Last year, on a day when a New York Times Magazine reporter visited him in Pretoria for a pre-Olympic profile, Pistorius explained that a security alarm in his house had gone off the previous night, and that he had taken a gun downstairs to investigate what turned out to be a false alarm. A Daily Mail profile in September noted that Pistorius had "a pistol by his bed and a machine gun by a window."
By late Thursday the narrative had morphed from a crime story to a forthcoming trial of a nonjudicial sort: the Blade Runner as underdog yet again. "If anybody can overcome this sort of thing, it's probably Oscar," Mike Finch, editor of the South African edition of Runner's World, told Sky News on Thursday. "He's had to deal with a lot in his life. He had a mother that died when he was very young, he obviously has his disability, but yet he's been amazing from a South African perspective as an ambassador. There is a certain school of people that don't particularly like him, but I think today everybody has kind of rallied round him."
February 25, 2013
For my part, I have never been around an athlete who was more outwardly gracious. In 2011, when Pistorius was visiting New York City for a race, I happened upon him interrupting his own warmups to run with Andre Lampkin, a 23-year-old former junior college football player who had recently lost parts of all four limbs to bacterial meningitis. There were no cameras present, so this was not contrived benevolence. Pistorius would often remember the names of cameramen and ask about their families. At the Olympics he stepped right through a barricade of his own publicists to shake the hands, one by one, of dozens of media members.
But for all his charm, there was a darker side to Pistorius, one that came out when his inspiring story was more carefully examined. His blades conferred him an undeniable and unique biomechanical advantage. (He has, by far, the fastest leg swing time ever documented in a sprinter.) Pistorius and his camp did not take kindly to stories that reported this fact.
South African sports physiologist Ross Tucker has been the world's most public voice on the topic of Pistorius's technological edge, and when he published an article in the South African edition of Runner's World shortly before the start of the London Games, Pistorius, according to Finch, wrote to the magazine via Twitter direct message: "If you want to give Ross Tucker a platform to voice his opinion, don't be surprised when I don't want to do articles with this publication." Tucker was roundly criticized in South Africa, even though his analysis of Pistorius was scientifically sound. "All I can tell you is that my conclusion based on the evidence is that his blades make him go faster," Tucker says.
Most of the time Pistorius did not have to defend himself, because the media and public took up his cause for him, both on and off the track. A cover story for Outside magazine in 2011, written by the magazine's editor, claimed, "For now, at least, both the science and fans seem to be overwhelmingly in Pistorius's camp." The article, in fact, bungled the science of Pistorius's biomechanics. Most glaringly, the author maintained that Pistorius's leg swing time was the same or longer than that of other elite competitors—an assertion that was the exact opposite of the truth.
In the interest of narrative, science became a footnote to the Pistorius story, one that was often wielded to show how cynical and uncool were those who dared to bring it up. A critical word about Pistorius was an attack on the human spirit, and that feel-good force field carried over to his personal life.
Late last year Samantha Taylor, an ex-girlfriend of Pistorius's, was set to dish publicly on their year and a half together. "Oscar is certainly not what people think he is," Taylor said, according to the weekly City Press. Taylor told City Press's sister publication, Rapport, that she was "prepared to reveal what Pistorius made me go through." Speculation was that Taylor was alluding to Pistorius's reputation as a ladies' man, but Taylor was pilloried by the public. Soon after she issued a statement through her lawyer in which she distanced herself from her earlier statements and asked that she not be contacted again on the subject.
As placid and accessible as Pistorius has been with the media, he had nonetheless made news with dangerous and unsavory behavior. In 2009 he crashed a speedboat and had to be airlifted to a hospital. "He liked fast cars and things," Hurtault says. "He's got that side to him too." Alcohol was found on the boat, prompting speculation that Pistorius had been impaired, and witnesses say he had been drinking; police, for reasons they did not explain, did not test Pistorius for alcohol at the time, and never pressed charges. Reports of rude behavior or public drunkenness surfaced from time to time, most notably later in '09, when Pistorius was arrested for assault following a scuffle with a woman at his home. His friends portrayed it as an accident, and the charges were dropped. At the 2012 Paralympics, in a postrace outburst, Pistorius claimed that the prosthetic legs of the man who beat him were unfairly long.
As more details began to emerge of Steenkamp's death—neighbors reportedly heard yelling hours before hearing gunshots, security guards allegedly had come to the residence earlier in response to a domestic disturbance and Steenkamp, according to an unnamed South African official with knowledge of the case, was behind a bathroom door when she was shot—the public support for Pistorius, while it remained, took on an increasingly hushed tone.
No matter how his case is ultimately adjudicated—if bail is not granted at a hearing this week, Pistorius could be in jail for months before the trial begins—we should not confuse the man who will be in court with the one who, following the 400-meter semis, exchanged bib numbers with eventual gold medalist Kirani James of Grenada in one of the most touching moments of the London Olympics. If his personal life makes us feel that his on-track persona was a lie, that is because we made the familiar mistake of confusing one with the other. Bravery and sangfroid in competition are just that.
Already, though, it seems that Pistorius will seek to leverage his status as a beloved athlete and totem. A statement issued by his family denied the murder charges "in the strongest terms" and reminded us that "Oscar Pistorius has made history as an Olympic and Paralympic sportsman and has been an inspiration to others the world over."
And yet, as his trial proceeds, it's instructive to note what Pistorius himself told me in 2011: "I've always said I don't want to be treated any better or worse than anyone else."
Most times, Pistorius did not have to defend himself, because the media and the public took up his cause for him—on and off the track.
Get the latest coverage of the case of Oscar Pistorius, including insight from David Epstein, Michael Rosenberg and others at SI.com/mag