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Oscar Pistorius, foreground, stands after his Feb. 19 bail hearing in Pretoria as his brother, Carl, middle, and father, Henke, right, look on. (Masi Losi/AP)
Oscar Pistorius, foreground, stands after his Feb. 19 bail hearing in Pretoria as his brother, Carl, middle, and father, Henke, right, look on. (Masi Losi/AP)

SOUTH AFRICA

The unmaking of Oscar Pistorius Add to ...

In a sports-crazy nation, nobody questioned the idolizing of Oscar Pistorius. Not after his scrapes with the law, not when he applied for more gun licences, and not when he was allowed to enter an Olympic event for which he hadn’t qualified.

As the South African “Blade Runner” became a celebrated global icon, he began to change, his friends said. He became more aloof, less approachable, and he abruptly cut off some of his friends, they said. They worried that the fame and glamour were making him into someone new.

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His ghostwriter, Italian journalist Gianni Merlo, now questions the Pistorius mythology that he helped to create. After the 26-year-old double-amputee Olympic hero was arrested for the shooting death of his girlfriend last month, Mr. Merlo wondered if the global media had built him into a dangerously worshipped celebrity. “Have we unwittingly cultivated a monster?” he wrote in an essay in an Italian newspaper after the shooting.

Other friends asked whether South Africa’s publicity machinery had exploited a hero who needed help, ignoring the warning signs and psychological scars of an often-troubled life. “Things were pushed under the carpet,” says South African broadcaster Graeme Joffe, who co-owned a racehorse with Mr. Pistorius. “He was the poster boy for South Africa. Nobody wanted to knock down a role model.”

This week, Mr. Pistorius persuaded a judge to relax his bail conditions, allowing him to travel abroad for more of the competitions that earned him more than $1-million (U.S.) a year in endorsements and appearance fees. But he faces another court appearance on June 4, and then a trial a few months later on charges of murdering Reeva Steenkamp by shooting her through his bathroom door in the dark, predawn hours of Valentine’s Day.

A closer look at the saga of Oscar Pistorius reveals a roller-coaster life: an emotionally reserved man who had suffered psychological trauma from an early age as his affluent family was split by death and divorce; a man with a passion for expensive sports cars and powerful guns, who enjoyed all the advantages of a country where the rules didn’t always apply to sports celebrities.

Elite background

He was a self-made hero, courageously overcoming a huge double handicap, yet he was also a child of privilege who attended an elite private school and grew up in Johannesburg’s wealthy suburbs. His grandfather and three uncles are reportedly shareholders in about 90 companies, including a beach lodge in Mozambique, a private game reserve near Kruger Park, two luxury lodges at an Austrian ski resort, big-game hunting operations, an armoured-vehicle dealershipand various coastal properties and mining companies.

For the men in his family, guns and dangerous accidents were a frequent theme. His brother, Carl, is facing a charge of culpable homicide for a car accident in which a woman on a motorcycle was killed. His father, Henke, once shot himself in the groin by accident while cleaning his pistol, according to a South African newspaper.

Oscar himself accidentally fired a gun in a Johannesburg restaurant in January, nearly hitting a boxer friend in the foot. He asked his friend to “take the blame” for the incident, a police investigator testified at Mr. Pistorius’s bail hearing last month.

The investigator also testified that he found unlicensed .38-calibre ammunition in a safe in the athlete’s home – enough to warrant charges for a weapons violation.

Altogether his father, grandfather and three uncles are reported to own 55 firearms, and Oscar had applied for licences for six more guns, including a Smith & Wesson Model 500 that its manufacturer calls “the world’s most powerful handgun.”

The question that haunts the Pistorius saga is whether his celebrity status allowed him to receive privileged treatment from South African authorities, including the police, firearms regulators and even the national Olympics authorities.

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