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.
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.
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.
In a country like South Africa, those privileges began early. After realizing that his prosthetic legs allowed him to compete in many sports, he says he enjoyed the “good fortune” of growing up in a country where athletes are advantaged. “The national curriculum places outdoor sporting activities on an equal footing with academic achievement and duly allocates equal time to both,” he recalled happily in his autobiography.
Rugby and cricket, both of which he played at Pretoria Boys High School, are as revered as religion in South Africa. Sportsmen who can compete internationally are even more revered. And so in 2009 and 2012, when Mr. Pistorius was questioned by police over alleged incidents of assault and verbal threats, the police were so infatuated with him that he posed for photos with them and gave them autographs, according to a South African magazine report. He was speedily released from questioning. “Cases were opened, and the cases disappeared,” Mr. Joffe said in an interview.
Even when Mr. Pistorius was booked on the murder charges last month, he was not handcuffed as the police took him away, the magazine report noted. He was allowed to stay in a police-station cell by himself, rather than being consigned to an overcrowded prison.
His autobiography, Blade Runner, ghostwritten by Mr. Merlo, is replete with stories that are presented as hijinks or accidents, even though they could have warranted police scrutiny. He described himself as an “adrenalin junkie” from an early age. At 15, he was allowed to drive his brother’s car illegally around Pretoria. Both he and his brother bought their first cars when they were 17, too young for driver’s licences.
A few years later, when Oscar fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car on an expressway, and when he smashed into a submerged pier in a motorboat containing empty liquor bottles, the police seemed to pay little attention. Last year, a New York Times journalist described him speeding at 250 kilometres an hour in his Nissan GT-R sports car. (He also owns a $370,000 McLaren.)
In his passion for guns, he may have received privileges, too. When he applied for a licence in 2010 for the 9-millimetre semi-automatic pistol that he later used to shoot his girlfriend, he could have been denied a licence under firearm regulations because he had already spent a night in jail for allegedly assaulting a woman.
The licence could also have been revoked later for his involvement in other incidents that led to police investigations, including the accidental gunshot at the Johannesburg restaurant and an alleged verbal threat to break another man’s legs in a dispute over a young woman last year. But, instead, his licence application was accepted in 2010, and it was never revoked.
The biggest privilege of all, arguably, was the one that made history: the decision to let him compete in the 400-metre race at the London Olympics last year, even though he had not met the official requirements.
He had already qualified for the South African relay team, but it was the individual race that brought the glamour, making him the first amputee in history to compete in an Olympic individual track race. South African athletics officials later confirmed that he hadn’t qualified for the 400 metres because he hadn’t run the required times in international competition, but he was sent to the Olympics anyway, with virtually no debate.
In a little-noticed interview on the eve of the Olympic Games, South Africa’s Sports Minister admitted that Mr. Pistorius was the beneficiary of special treatment. “It’s a sensitive issue,” said the minister, Fikile Mbalula. “It’s not really about the athlete; it is a political decision that has been taken.”
Simon Magakwe, a sprinter who posted a greater number of Olympic qualifying times than Mr. Pistorius but was still kept off the South African team, later told reporters that he was hurt and saddened to see his Olympic dream destroyed by the decision to favour the celebrity.
The privileges and favouritism may have blinded the Pistorius entourage to the psychological trauma that he had endured in his family and personal relationships. Those who profited from his celebrity brand seemed oblivious to the issues that he carried within him as the legacy of his childhood suffering.
In his autobiography, he described his mother, Sheila, as “the centre of my world.” She doted on her children and left inspirational messages in their lunch boxes, which he still often rereads today. His older brother, Carl, was his closest friend and companion everywhere. Yet both relationships, along with his intense relationship with his first serious girlfriend, Vicky, became ravaged by crisis and turmoil.
He was emotionally scarred at the age of 7 when his parents divorced, and he soon drifted away from his largely absent father. He was even more deeply wounded at the age of 15 when his mother suddenly died of an adverse drug reaction when she was mistakenly diagnosed with hepatitis. (Her birth and death dates are tattooed in Roman numerals on his right arm today.) He and Carl were left “rudderless” and “effectively homeless” after her death, he recalled in his book.
Carl took it hardest, racked with guilt, blaming himself for their mother’s death. He had recently suffered a bout of hepatitis, which wrongly convinced the doctors that Sheila had the same condition.
After her death, the two teenaged brothers fought bitterly. In a remarkably candid and emotional letter to his brother in 2008, Carl remembered plunging into a “hellish time” of depression, alcohol and violence. Oscar, in contrast, sublimated his grief into his training. “You became incredibly focused and driven,” Carl told his brother.
Their father, meanwhile, wrote a letter to Oscar in which he defended his “exacting” and “sometimes even cruel” behaviour toward him. He said he was only trying to make Oscar more “self-sufficient” and capable of standing up to bullies. But by the time of the letter in 2008, the gulf between them was obvious. They seldom saw each other, and Oscar later told a journalist that his father was “not much of a parent.” Henke admitted that he mainly saw his son “on the television.”
Henke and Carl were reunited with Oscar in a Pretoria courtroom as he sought bail on the murder charge last month. Inside the courtroom, they were the image of a tight-knit family – yet there was soon a rift again. The family was upset when Henke made racial comments, telling the media that the family’s handguns were necessary because the African National Congress government had failed to protect white people from crime. Oscar and other family members issued a strongly worded statement, disowning Henke’s commentsand saying they were “deeply concerned” by them.
Oscar had a similar story of frequent conflict and reunion with his girlfriend, Vicky, whom he first began dating as a teenager. They argued, split up, got back together and split up again in a fiery and tumultuous relationship. Their first breakup, Oscar said, was one of the lowest points of his life. “It was awful,” he said.
Today, more than a decade after his mother’s death, is Oscar Pistorius still unconsciously feeling the shock of those intimate losses and the pressure of his international celebrity status ? And were the warning signs ignored? His racehorse partner, Mr. Joffe, is convinced that the athlete needed professional help for his emotions, yet those signs were neglected.
One of his close friends, South African racehorse trainer Mike Azzie, said he is worried whether the Olympic superstar can cope with his ordeal over the murder charge.
“He is really battling,” Mr. Azzie said in an interview. “I’m hurting for him. After talking to him, I’m shattered. It’s like it is happening to my own child.”