By Stephanie Findlay
Oscar Pistorius went from hero to villain overnight when he killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. As journalist Stephanie Findlay writes, the Pistorius case has put a spotlight on guns and on violence in South Africa, especially against women. The case goes to trial on March 3.
Single copies of Star Dispatches eReads can be purchased for $2.99 at starstore.ca or itunes.ca/stardispatches
Blade Runner Down
He shot her four times with a 9-mm Parabellum pistol, morphing from hero to villain overnight.
Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee from South Africa, had triumphed as a Paralympics sprinter to become an international athletic star. The first disabled athlete to compete at the Olympics, he had also become a human rights icon. Pistorius, known as the Blade Runner for his sleek, curved racing prosthetics, represented the underdogs of the world, proving the impossible was possible. To South Africans, in particular, he was a symbol of triumph over adversity. Like his country, which had suffered for years under apartheid, Pistorius had a disadvantage. In overcoming it, South Africans saw themselves, too, overcoming the past.
Until Feb. 14, 2013, when Pistorius shot his girlfriend. “It’s not the first time I got a phone call at 4 in the morning,” says Peet van Zyl, his agent, while sitting with Ampie Louw, the runner’s coach, at Café Grenadine, a restaurant not far from where Pistorius first began training as a runner in Pretoria. “It’s usually — especially with rugby players — ‘Come get me, I can’t drive.’ This one was different.”
The athlete’s fall from grace was remarkable, but for many, unsurprising. There were warning signs. “The easygoing guys are not the champions,” says Louw. “I can vouch for that,” says van Zyl. “They’ve all had that streak in them. Eighty per cent of them have issues.”
Pistorius was formally charged with premeditated murder last August and his trial is due to begin on March 3. Oscar Pistorius was born on Nov. 22, 1986, in Sandton, an opulent suburb of Johannesburg anecdotally known as “Africa’s richest square mile,” to Henke Pistorius, an industrialist from a wealthy Afrikaner family, and Sheila, a homemaker. Oscar, their second child, was born without fibulae, the leg bones that extend from the ankle to the knee. Each foot had just a big and second toe. As Oscar relates in his autobiography, his doctor, Gerry Versfeld, said the best solution was to amputate both of Oscar’s legs when he was still a baby. If the amputation happened before he was ready to learn to walk, he would adapt sooner and better to the prostheses, it was reasoned. When Pistorius was 11 months old, Versfeld amputated his legs below the knee. At 17 months, he received his first pair of plastic-and-mesh prosthetic legs.
“From that day onwards I became invincible, a wild child,” Pistorius writes. During his terrible twos, he was a self-described menace, a toddler with golden curls who raced around the house, climbed trees and wrestled with his older brother. “Your first prosthetic limbs were without moulded feet on the end,” his father, Henke, wrote in a letter published in the book. “You looked like a little pirate with them on . . . and the house echoed with the clip-pety-clap tapping noise that your prostheses made as you raced a r o u n d .”
There were many happy times when the children were small, with weekend hikes and summer holidays by the sea. The kids — the third child, Aimee, arrived in 1989, three years after Oscar —received dogs as presents. But life at the Pistorius home grew more difficult. When Oscar was 7, his parents divorced. The children lived with their mother, a softer alternative to the authoritarian Henke, who demanded “absolute discipline,” a typical Pistorius trait, according to Oscar. Along with his older brother, Carl, he attended Pretoria Boys High School, an English-language boarding school (at home, Oscar spoke English as well as Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s Dutch settlers). The boys wore dark green uniforms with grey knee socks and greeted men with “sir” and women with “ma’am.”
In March 2002, the principal interrupted Oscar’s history class to tell him his father was expecting him and he had 10 minutes to pack his things. His mother had been sick for weeks. The doctors believed she had hepatitis, but it was a misdiagnosis — she’d had an adverse drug reaction following a hysterectomy — and the sickness spread. Henke, Carl and Oscar arrived at the hospital to sit with Aimee by Sheila’s bedside. Ten minutes later, she was gone. The Pistorius kids would stay with other family members for the rest of their schooling, opting against living with Henke, who would remain distant.
Just over a year later, Oscar, a tenacious and gifted athlete, was playing rugby and badly injured his knee. As part of his rehabilitation he was sent to the University of Pretoria Sports Science Institute, where he began training. At that point, running was hard for Pistorius. His prosthetics required constant attention and were heavy, weighing three kilograms. Chris Hatting, an aeronautical engineer who was a friend of Henke, changed that. He had been building custom prostheses for Pistorius, and this time he designed running legs for the teenager that were lighter and hook-shaped. Hatting would go on to invent Cheetahs, the carbon-fibre limbs used by most runners in the Paralympics.
Equipped with his new legs, Oscar began running. “I said, ‘Give me time with this guy, and we will bring back a medal,’ ” coach Ampie Louw, a big man wearing a blue open-collared shirt and a silver chain, told the Star. “If you see a guy with high leg speed, you know you can work with something.” Pistorius entered a 100-metre race and finished with a time of 11.72 seconds, breaking the record of 12.20 for a double-amputee Paralympian, category T44. After competing in the South African Disabled Games, he represented South Africa at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004, winning the T44 200-metre gold medal and breaking another world record with his time, as well as earning a bronze in the 100-metre race