From Olympic hero to accused murderer

Inspiring story takes chilling turn as Pistorius charged with killing glamorous girlfriend

Oscar Pistorius weeps, charged with intentionally killing girlfriend

No memory of the London Olympics last summer remains as vivid as the image of South African inspiration Oscar Pistorius crossing the finish line of a 400-meter qualifying heat on his carbon-fiber blades.

Suddenly, neither Pistorius' time nor any controversy over the presence of "The Blade Runner,'' at the Games mattered. In a mobbed media mixed zone inside Olympic Stadium following the race, the charismatic double-amputee who sparked a man-made-versus-muscle debate left no doubt about one thing: He basked in the glow of worldwide attention.

I was standing 10 feet away from Pistorius as he shared details of his remarkable life, such as how his late mother never treated him any differently despite being born without usable legs below the knee. How he brought his customized blades on the plane to London from South Africa as carry-on luggage. How he was the final Olympian added to his country's team and the last athlete anybody ever would expect to steal the show from sprinter Usain Bolt on the first day of track and field competition.

As Pistorius finished talking, he held out his left arm.

"Look, it's an hour after the race and I still have goose bumps," he said.

And he was not the only one.

It seems inconceivable that six months later Pistorius could be accused of something that sends shivers down your spine.

"Only the news of Nelson Mandela's death could have challenged Oscar on the Richter Scale,'' London's "Independent" newspaper wrote of Pistorius' shocking fall from grace.

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, police in Pretoria, South Africa, charged Pistorius with the shooting death of his 30-year-old girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Tabloids referred to Pistorius and Steenkamp as a "golden couple.'' On Valentine's Day, law-enforcement officials say Pistorius shot Steenkamp four times with a 9 mm pistol found at the scene of his swanky villa inside a gated community on a golf estate.

Initial radio reports suggested it was a tragic accident because Pistorius had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar. South Africa suffers from a high crime rate and, as recently as November, Pistorius had revealed on Twitter that he had gone into "full combat recon mode'' after thinking his washing machine was an intruder.

It also wasn't hard to imagine a double-amputee feeling the need to keep a gun nearby in the middle of the night to defend himself in a country that has the second-highest rate of shooting deaths in the world, according to United Nations statistics. As South African sporting royalty, Pistorius was a target.

Pistorius, 26, was a known gun aficionado too. He once posted photos on the Internet of him at a shooting range and appeared in a 2011 Nike advertisement above the caption: "I am a bullet in the chamber.'' If only art wouldn't have infiltrated life for Pistorius, perhaps a young woman still would be alive.

Accepting Pistorius made a deadly mistake was easier than comprehending one of the world's most inspiring athletes could gun down the love of his life in cold blood. But as details quickly emerged, the cynicism that Pistorius' Olympic moment cured last August came back to infect sports fans with an all-too-familiar feeling of disillusionment. A hero to millions who once represented the power of the Olympic spirit suddenly embodied the frailty of the human condition. Is the biggest surprise that we are so surprised?

In sports, not even seeing is believing anymore and, sadly, maybe it hasn't been in a long time. Never has the measure of a man been harder to read from a stopwatch or scoreboard. The fall of another sporting icon reminded kids everywhere, more than ever, to look for role models in their living rooms, not locker rooms. That is a rule with seemingly no exceptions these days.

The presumption of innocence we owe Pistorius might prove tricky as this saga unfolds. Police acknowledged receiving calls in the past about "allegations of a domestic nature,'' at Pistorius' residence. What led to Thursday's shooting remains unknown, though police said neighbors reported hearing yelling and screaming around 4 a.m.

"There is no other suspect involved," police spokeswoman Denise Beukes told reporters. "We are talking about neighbors and people that heard things that happened earlier in the evening and when the shooting took place. There are witnesses and there have also been interviews."

They are much different than the interviews Pistorius granted one glorious day when he projected the Olympic ideal. I remember telling my son after the race that if they ever made a movie of Pistorius' life, I was there for a potentially great opening scene.

Stunningly, the ending would be harder to watch than anybody imagined.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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