Opinion | Columnists

The golden boy with an edge of steel

The plaudits of a golden summer, during which Lord Coe called him ‘a real inspiration to people around the world’, will seem a world away now

  • By Owen Gibson
  • Published: 20:00 February 22, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

They had, perhaps inevitably, given the limited lexicon of the global celebrity age, already been christened “South Africa’s answer to Posh and Becks”.

Reeva Steenkamp, a law graduate from Port Elizabeth who was a regular cover girl for FHM and the face of Avon, had been extensively pictured on the arm of “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius in recent months.

However, the fairytale romance between the double amputee who grew up to be one of South Africa’s biggest global sporting exports and the 30-year-old model took a macabre and tragic turn in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. It ended with Steenkamp lying dead from four gunshot wounds to her head, chest and arm and Pistorius charged with her murder.

That Pistorius has become one of South Africa’s biggest names, and one of the highest-profile athletes of London’s Olympic and Paralympic summer, tells its own story about the ambition and determination of the so-called “fastest man on no legs”.

Yet, beneath the glossy facade and the sincere accounts of his humble nature, there were some signs of a more complex side to the inspirational tale of the poster boy for the Paralympic movement.

The feted couple — Pistorius had been voted South Africa’s sexiest celebrity and Steenkamp was a regular in FHM’s list of the country’s “100 sexiest women” — were first pictured together in appropriately glitzy circumstances.

However, when they stepped out for the first time on to the red carpet at the South Africa sports awards in November, it prompted his previous girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, to say: “Oscar has such a way with women. She’s probably not the only one he’s got. Oscar is certainly not what people think he is.”

The former lovers then became engaged in an unseemly Twitter spat, which was gleefully leaped upon by the South African media.

Like many South Africans, Pistorius appears to have a close relationship with guns. In one newspaper profile, he explained that when he could not sleep, he sometimes went to the shooting range near his house to fire off rounds with his 9mm handgun.

In an interview with the Daily Mail last year, it was revealed he slept with a pistol next to his bed, a machine gun by a window and a cricket bat and baseball bat behind the door.

As on many wealthy South African estates, Pistorius and his neighbours live in a barely concealed state of paranoia about the country’s high crime rate. As a well-known figure, Pistorius may have felt more at threat than most.

His domestic life in Pretoria’s Silver Lakes estate, one of the many expansive gated communities that spread out from the smart South African administrative capital, has not been without controversy.

Pistorius spent a night in the cells in 2009 after a woman complained to police he had assaulted her during a party at his house, which, like most in the wealthier areas of South African cities, is protected by armed guards, high walls and security cameras.

He was charged with assault, but later released with a warning, after claiming that he was trying to make guests leave his house. Police said on Thursday there had been reports of other “domestic incidents” involving the sprinter.

The intricate tattoo on the sprinter’s arm is a Bible verse from Corinthians that begins: “I do not like a man running aimlessly”, and it is as though he has spent most of his 26 years furiously trying to cram in as much as possible.

Pistorius could be charm personified and was polite to a fault, but like most elite athletes, he also hated losing and was remorselessly driven to succeed.

A New York Times profile published in January 2012 — a year which was to be the biggest of the South African sprinter’s life as he became the first double amputee to compete on the track in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games — was headlined: “The Fast Life of Oscar Pistorius”. As well as his extraordinary drive and determination, it detailed his love of fast cars and bikes and a speedboat crash into a submerged pier on a river south of Johannesburg in 2009, which left him with broken ribs, a broken jaw and eye socket and requiring 172 stitches in his face.

He later said the speedboat accident was a wake-up call that forced him to knuckle down and focus on the London Olympics and Paralympics.

“It took several months for the message to sink in. There were things I was doing in my life that weren’t conducive to great performance. I was racing motorbikes at the weekend and taking unnecessary risks. I have set aside so many things in my life for my racing, to go and throw it away right now wouldn’t make much sense,” he told the Guardian in an interview before the Games.

For all that he is typically charming in public, and has been an eloquent spokesman for a Paralympic movement, the popularity of which he has helped boost exponentially, there have also been frequent flashes of the steel beneath.

Endlessly, restlessly driven, his talent and application has brought him six Paralympic gold medals, one silver and one bronze. His sporting achievements are not in doubt and the 26-year-old has a keen appreciation of his image and his own self-worth, making well over $1 million (Dh3.67 million) a year from endorsements and appearance fees.

One of his most recent public appearances was to compete against a thoroughbred racehorse in Doha at the behest of the Emir to promote the region’s sporting ambitions. Inevitably, he won.

Pistorius himself owns a handful of thoroughbred racehorses and a company that services Ferraris.

On the endless round of interviews that he undertook in the run-up to the London Games, on behalf of sponsors and corporate backers that include Nike and BT, he remained engagingly upbeat and was frequently praised for shifting perceptions towards disability. But some who caught him on an off day also complained he could be arrogant and aloof.

Born without fibulae, Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. Encouraged by his mother, a key influence in his life who died when he was 15, the sports-mad teen was urged to make the most of his ability rather than focus on his disability, competing alongside non-disabled athletes in a range of disciplines from waterpolo to rugby.

He has often quoted from a letter, written by his mother when he had his legs amputated and intended to be read in later life: “The real loser is never the person who crosses the finishing line last. The real loser is the person who sits on the side. The person who does not even try to compete.”

Following his exit from the Olympic Games at the semi-final stage, and after he had exchanged bib numbers with eventual gold medallist Kirani James in a hail of flash bulbs, he again referred back to his mother’s influence in the mixed zone in the bowels of the stadium.

That too was where he was forced to backtrack on his angry comments in the aftermath of his shock defeat in the 200 metres to Alan Oliveira, a young Brazilian Paralympic challenger who said he was disappointed in his one-time hero’s attempts to belittle his achievement.

Another oft-told tale in interviews to underline his no-nonsense attitude to his disability was his mother’s instructions to him and his older brother Carl when they were getting ready to play one day as children: “You, put your shoes on. And you, put your legs on.” “That was disability as I saw it,” he said.

It was shortly before the 2008 Beijing Games that the debate over whether his prosthetic blades conferred an advantage over non-disabled runners became an emotive talking point. Pistorius was initially banned from non-disabled competition, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Pistorius came to athletics late, starting to compete in 2004 after a serious knee injury sustained while playing rugby left him looking for an alternative sport at 17. His natural talent and explosive speed were obvious immediately and he set a new world record of 11.51 secs in the 100 metres at a meeting in Pretoria after just two months’ training. At the Athens Paralympics just six months later, he won a gold and a bronze and set his sights on competing against non-disabled athletes.

Pistorius made history at the London Games by becoming the first double amputee to compete alongside non-disabled rivals, but his Paralympics did not exactly run to plan. The 26-year-old sparked a row over the length of blades that should be allowed immediately after being beaten by Oliveira in the 200 metres. In the 100 metres final, to deafening roars, he was defeated by Britain’s Jonnie Peacock.

But he still came away with two gold medals, in the 400 metres and 4x100 metres relay, to add to the hat-trick of golds he won in Beijing. The plaudits of a golden summer during which Lord Sebastian Coe called him “a real inspiration to people around the world” will seem a world away now.

On first hearing the news of her death, friends and family paid tribute to Steenkamp, who described herself on Twitter as: “SA Model, Cover Girl, Tropika Island of Treasure Celeb Contestant, Law Graduate, Child of God.”

Meanwhile, fellow athletes and fans of Pistorius lined up to express their shock. But as the day wore on and the athlete was charged after police knocked down early reports that Steenkamp had been mistaken for an intruder, they retreated behind a wall of silence as they waited for the facts to emerge.

Sir Philip Craven, the Bolton-born president of the International Paralympic Committee, spoke of his “shock and disbelief” upon hearing the news that Pistorius had been arrested for murder at the peak of his career, offering his “sympathies and condolences to the family of Reeva Steenkamp”.

Those close to Steenkamp, meanwhile, claimed a career that was on the brink of liftoff had been cruelly cut short. Last weekend, she was due to appear in the South African reality television series Tropika Island of Treasure. Instead her agent, Sarit Tomlins, was left to pay tribute to a woman she described as the “kindest and sweetest human being” and “an angel on earth”.

Meanwhile, the extraordinary tale of Pistorius, having taken a most grim and unexpected detour, awaits his appearance in a Pretoria police court. The snappers were out in force again on Thursday, but there was no red carpet in sight — only one of the most famous athletes on Earth hiding his head beneath a silver-hooded top as he emerged from the police station.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

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