Double amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, demolishing a sweet sporting mythos that had proved inspirational for physically disabled individuals and the institutionally disabled nation of South Africa.
Pistorius, nicknamed “Blade Runner” for the carbon-fiber prosthetic attachments replacing the legs that were amputated before his first birthday, was said to be the most admired South African after Nelson Mandela. Known as “the fastest man on no legs,” he doggedly overcame congenital flaws to represent South Africa in the 2012 London Olympics. He claims his motto is “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have,” and a tattoo on his back features this passage from Corinthians: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.”
“Oscar was our good thing,” wrote Sarah Britten of Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian. “He was our story, a hero who, for all his flaws, overcame the odds and exemplified the greatness of the human spirit.” South African expat Donald McCrae wrote for the Guardian: “Pistorius was a gleaming symbol of South Africa’s past resistance to adversity, and of its future embrace of equality. His life-story was often told as a parable of hope that the country really was in the process of remaking itself after apartheid.”
That all changed on Valentine’s Day. Rather than the second coming of Mandela, Oscar Pistorius is looking more and more like South Africa’s O. J. Simpson.
This is what’s known so far:
On the early morning of February 14, Pistorius fired four 9mm bullets at his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, hitting her in the head, arm, waist, and hand. At least three of these bullets were fired at Steenkamp through the door of a bathroom in which she had apparently locked herself. Police refuted initial rumors that Pistorius had mistakenly shot at an intruder, citing a lack of evidence of forced entry at his home. The back of Steenkamp’s skull was also crushed, possibly by a bloody cricket bat found at the crime scene.
Neighbors said they’d heard shouting and screaming coming from Pistorius’s home shortly before the killing. Police later confirmed they’d previously visited his residence in response to domestic disturbances.
Before calling paramedics, Pistorius reportedly called his best friend Justin Divaris and confessed to the shooting. When Divaris arrived at the crime scene, he says he saw Pistorius repeatedly sobbing, “My baba, I’ve killed my baba. God take me away.” When paramedics arrived, Steenkamp was still alive but gargling blood from her injuries. She died at the scene.
Although they were known as South Africa’s “golden couple,” Pistorious and Steenkamp had only been dating since November. On the day she was killed, Steenkamp had been scheduled to deliver a motivational speech against domestic abuse at a local school, citing her alleged experiences with a boyfriend prior to Pistorius.
Only days before her death, Steenkamp had written the following on her Instagram page:
I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individuals in SA. RIP Anene Booysen. #rape #crime #sayNO.
And here, from February 13, was the last Tweet she’d ever write:
What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow? #getexcited #ValentinesDay
Two days after her death, South African TV aired a reality show Steenkamp had filmed where the 29-year-old blonde model delivered a passage that uncomfortably foreshadowed her demise:
Not just your journey in life, but the way that you go out and make your exit is so important, you have either made an impact in a positive way or a negative way….I’m going to miss you all so much and I love you very, very much.
Pistorius had slightly damaged his own PR last summer during an extraordinarily bitchy case of sour grapes when he complained about the blade length of a rival Paralympian who’d bested him in a race.
But after news of the shooting, evidence quickly started bubbling to the surface that inside Pistorius lurked a personality far darker than the cherubic amputee who’d won hearts and endorsement contracts the world over. An alleged friend of Steenkamp’s said she’d been complaining that Pistorius had grown increasingly possessive. A former girlfriend warned that he is “certainly not what people think he is” and has reportedly been asked to testify against him in court. An associate recalled that beneath his media-savvy gloss, Pistorius was prone to bursts of hostility and screaming.
But in court on Thursday as he was formally being charged with murder, Pistorius was a sobbing mess. He faces a bail hearing tomorrow on the same day when Reeva Steenkamp’s friends and family will be holding a memorial service for the slain model.
If he is found guilty of murder, he becomes an even more uncomfortable emblem of South Africa after apartheid. I doubt that many people who cheered for Mandela’s ascendance and a new “Rainbow Nation” expected South Africa to subsequently become a world leader in rape, violence, and genocide. And I doubt that many sports fans who found inspiration in Oscar Pistorius expected him to murder his girlfriend. Such are the pitfalls of romanticizing and idealizing the disadvantaged.
What’s perhaps most unsettling about his alleged crime is the fact that he’s disabled and is therefore presumed to always be a victim and never a perpetrator. But I like to believe in an equality of corruptibility. I cling to the hateful fantasy that blacks, women, gays, and the disabled are every bit as capable of malice, ill will, and murderous intent as are fully ambulatory straight white males. And as far as I can tell, Oscar Pistorius was perfectly able to kill.
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