Last week, 26-year-old Oscar Pistorius was a history-making Olympic athlete. This week, he is an accused murderer.
You do not need to know anything more to make certain, justifiable presumptions: that his ascent to athletic glory made him a hero in the eyes of many; that his competition on sport’s largest global stage made him an idol; that his responsibility for a shooting death has made him a pariah. Now turn all those highs and lows up a notch. In fact, multiply them by a factor of 10.
Oscar Pistorius broke Olympic records by competing against sprinters with two feet when he has none. He is famous for being the “Blade Runner,” a man who runs like the wind with nothing but J-shaped carbon-fiber prostheses below his knees. The person he killed was his girlfriend.
That girlfriend was Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model, reality television star, and law school graduate. Like Pistorius, she is from South Africa, a country with the world’s highest rate of women being murdered by their husbands or lovers. The tragedy here includes an eerie irony: Ms. Steenkamp dedicated much of her abbreviated life to championing women’s rights and speaking out against the ravages of domestic violence in her home country.
She died in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day after Pistorius fired four shots from a 9mm pistol, three of which hit her.
Oscar Pistorius lost both of his legs below the knee when he was only 11 months old, having been born without a fibula connecting either of his knees to either of his ankles. Two months later, he was fitted with prostheses. Four months after that, he learned to walk.
His physical limitations never seemed to present, well, physical limitations. The first time he competed against other amputees was at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. By 2012, he was one of the top-ranked 400-meter runners in the world, and he ultimately won a bid to compete in the London Olympics against the likes of Usain Bolt. In so doing, he became the first person to compete in an Olympic running event without biologically intact legs.
In an Olympics full of headlines, his story dominated. He became internationally recognized. He gained corporate sponsors. His career raced forward.
He charged through his life in similar fashion. He got a tattoo on a whim one night when he could not sleep. He crashed his boat into a pier and required 172 stitches. He lost a prosthetic leg when the dirt bike he was riding clipped a fence. He likes to drive his car at speeds over 100 mph. He doesn’t sleep well, his mind always racing.
Then there is the gun. He owns at least the pistol mentioned above, and he visited a shooting range by his house to target practice when he could not sleep. He was delighted when he taught a reporter how to shoot, and the reporter showed promise of being a good enough shot that he could be “pretty deadly.”
The gun is about more than just sport, though. Pistorius’ home is in an exclusive gated community in Pretoria, South Africa. Despite the 24-hour-security guard, Pistorius was always anxious about local crime. It is true that burglaries are rampant and murders are common in his hometown. It is also true that Pistorius made no secret of his willingness to go into “combat recon mode“ when he suspected there was an intruder in the house; there is no public report that his suspicions were ever proven right. Indeed, he once mistakenly sprang into action when he heard his washing machine running.
Which brings us back to the early morning of February 14, 2013.
Police claim that earlier in the night, a neighbor heard voices arguing at the house. Then, according to police and prosecutors, Pistorius rose from the bed he was sharing with Ms. Steenkamp, walked down a hallway leading to his bathroom, and discovered that Ms. Steenkamp had locked herself into the toilet, which was closed off from the rest of the bathroom by a wooden door. They say he shot through that door four times, with three bullets striking and killing her. They also have not denied leaked reports claiming a bloodied cricket bat was found at the scene, along with boxes of steroids. Reports have also surfaced of a previous altercation between Pistorius and another woman in 2009.
The picture the authorities are painting is one of a paranoid, trigger-happy and angry-prone young man who resolved a domestic dispute with a gun. Their message, perhaps, is that Pistorius may have felt unsafe in his home because of outside threats, but the biggest danger was the one he posed inside of it, himself a product of the violent culture that, in turn, he pointed to as the source of his own fears.
Pistorius’ side of the story, of course, is very different, with the only carry-over being an acknowledgement of the rampant crime in Pretoria. According to him, he and Ms. Steenkamp had enjoyed a peaceful evening at his home, and had gone to bed early. He woke up in the early morning to bring a fan, sitting on his bedroom balcony, inside. As he returned to the bedroom, he closed the sliding glass door and shut all the blinds, so the room was completely dark. At that point, he heard noises coming from the bathroom. He immediately became alarmed, as there are no security bars across his bathroom windows. What is more, contractors had been doing work on his home, and they had left ladders up outside that led to those unsecured bathroom windows.
So, Pistorius says, he made his way to the bed and grabbed that same 9mm pistol from underneath it. Too scared to turn on the lights, he moved in the dark, assuming that Ms. Steenkamp was still asleep in the bed. He arrived in the bathroom, saw the window was indeed open, and located the source of the sound: it was coming from behind the door to the toilet.