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.
SI.COM: There are reports that Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend because he mistakenly thought she was an intruder. Is there any evidence that stands against that?
EPSTEIN: Obviously, this is breaking news and we have to be careful to reserve judgment. As far as the idea that Pistorius mistook his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, for an intruder, it is unclear where those reports are originating.
"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.
SI.COM: Pistorius has faced security-related incidents before. What kind of insight does that provide for this situation?
EPSTEIN: Last year, on a day when a New York Times Magazine reporter was visiting him in Pretoria for a pre-Olympics profile, Pistorius told the reporter that the security alarm in his house had gone off the previous night, and Pistorius had taken a gun and gone downstairs to investigate what turned out to be a false alarm. The reporter later went to a gun range with Pistorius to shoot targets with a 9-millimeter handgun.
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 Daily Mail profile last year, a reporter noted cricket and baseball bats behind Pistorius' door, and "a pistol by his bed and a machine gun by a window."
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.
SI.COM: Pistorius is seen as a hero in South Africa. How big of news is this, especially with South Africa's State of the Nation address tonight?
EPSTEIN: Here you have a murder investigation that involves not one, but two recognizable faces, and they both belong to young, attractive, intelligent, ambitious individuals: the first double-amputee Olympian in history and his model/law graduate/reality TV star girlfriend. So for all the conventional front-page reasons, it's a massive story. One of the most camera-friendly athletes in history was suddenly ducking his head beneath a hood as he leaves a police station.
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. As I wrote previously, "If Henke and Sheila Pistorius ever unleashed upon their son, Oscar, the adage "you can grow up to be whatever you want," they might have crossed their fingers behind their backs and categorically eliminated certain professions. Like, for example, "world class sprinter," given that Oscar was born with no fibula -- the outer bone between the knee and ankle -- in either of his legs, and had to have his legs amputated halfway between the knee and ankle before he was a year old."
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.
SI.COM: What does this incident do to Pistorius' current and future legacy?
EPSTEIN: I think no matter what the outcome of the case is, Pistorius' story will no longer be viewed as one that can bring instant and utter joy. That said, just as I don't think Americans quite realize how big of a star Pistorius is in South Africa, most Americans probably have heard little of the off-the-field incidents that have made news in South Africa.
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 continued to appear in South African media on rare occasions. Late last year, it appeared that Samantha Taylor, an ex-girlfriend of Pistorius, was set to dish publicly on Pistorius. "Oscar is certainly not what people think he is. We dated for a year and a half," Taylor said, according to City Press. According to the paper, Taylor told its sister publication that she was "prepared to reveal what [Pistorius] made me go through," but then followed with a lawyer's letter saying she was withdrawing her comments and did not want to be contacted further. In the comments section of that story, Taylor was criticized as bitter and an attention hound.
SI.COM: What happens next if Pistorius is found guilty? Will he ever compete on the track again?
EPSTEIN: I'm no expert in the South African legal system, but the current facts seem to suggest that Pistorius shot his girlfriend four times in the head and hand, and that authorities are pursuing murder charges. I can only make an analogy to what I think would happen in a similar case in the United States, and I would think that if a professional athlete here were convicted of murder in such circumstances, the question would be if he would ever be a free man again, and that competing again would not even be on the radar, so to speak.
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.
Aside from South African physiologist Ross Tucker, I have probably written as critically as anyone in the world about the science that allowed Pistorius to compete in the Olympics. But that controversy aside, I always enjoyed talking to Pistorius, and found him to be one of the friendliest athletes I've ever been around. In London, when a coterie of publicists were trying to keep a distance between Pistorius and photographers, he stepped right through his own people to shake the hand of every photographer. He knew most of their names, and engaged in small talk, and when he missed one handshake, he broke from his warm-up routine to fix that.
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.