Athlete’s trial fed his nation’s appetite for melodrama and revealed how it careers from giddy heights to miserable depths .
What has happened to this man? He was on the rise, he was like an icon, he was going to make lots of money … He has not earned a penny since. He has no sponsors. It’s a person that’s down and out. He’s broken. He’s not only broke but he’s broken. There is nothing left of this man. But we will show it’s far worse than that.”
These were the words of Barry Roux, loyal defence counsel for Oscar Pistorius, pleading last week for a high court judge to temper justice with mercy. The lawyer set out in stark terms how the 27-year-old had gone from the adulation of cheering crowds at an Olympic stadium to sobbing on the witness stand of his own murder trial, his soul exposed to the world. The same cameras that chased his glories and gold medals now hunted his pain.
Worst of all, Roux said, was Pistorius’s knowledge that he alone was the author of his downfall. It was he who pulled the trigger just after 3am on 14 February 2013, firing four lethally expanding bullets through a locked toilet door and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old law graduate and model. Thus entire lives can pivot on a few unfathomable seconds. As the Paralympian told the court: “That’s the moment that everything changed.
His had appeared to be the ultimate triumph of will over the cards that life can deal. Born without fibulas, Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. Six months later, he was walking on prosthetic limbs. He survived bullying at school, including an incident when pupils hid his prosthetics as he slept, set his bed and locker on fire, woke him and told him the building was burning down. His mother died when he was 15 and his father remains largely absent from his life.
Sport was my salvation, as it helped me get through this difficult time,” he wrote later. “My mother had been a strong woman; the centre of my world. Sporting activity was the only thing that could distract me from such a loss.
Hours in the gym unlocked a natural gift on the track. He went on to be one of the fastest men in the world, a moral example to millions, an explorer pushing the boundaries of sport. In 2011 a billboard was mounted in New York’s Times Square, advertising a new fragrance from Thierry Mugler called A*Men. It featured a picture of Pistorius with his prosthetics cast in chrome. The strapline said .A modern hero, an exceptional athlete.
The Blade Runner was a media darling, handsome, charming and widely liked. He told one interviewer that his fantasy dinner party would consist of Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp, James Dean and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. In 2012 he was profiled in the New York Times magazine. “Pistorius is, as well, blessed with an uncommon temperament – a fierce, even frenzied need to take on the world at maximum speed and with minimum caution,” the article observed with remarkable prescience. “It is an athlete’s disposition, that of a person who believes himself to be royalty of a certain kind – a prince of the physical world. Hanging out with Pistorius can be a great deal of fun. You also quickly understand that he is more than a little crazy … As he put together lunch for all of us – fruit smoothies, breaded chicken fillets he pulled from the refrigerator – he mentioned that a security alarm in the house had gone off the previous night, and he had grabbed his gun and tiptoed downstairs. (It turned out to be nothing.)”
Then there was London, the pinnacle of his achievement. Pistorius became the first amputee in Olympic history to compete on the track. Eighty-thousand spectators roared him on. Peet Van Zyl, his manager and agent, recalled in an interview: “It was mad. The reaction of the crowd was something special. It was one of the biggest highlights of his career.
Van Zyl believes there were two stars of the London Games: Usain Bolt, the Jamaican world record holder, and Oscar Pistorius. “He had the revenue and the marketability – he had everything. He was smart, he was good-looking, he had good business sense, he had it all. He was always on time, he was professional, he was a dream to work with. His potential was just huge. Everything was in place for the next five years.
Proposed sponsorships and brand endorsement deals flooded in from around the world. Companies offered to fly Pistorius in a private jet to meet them. Van Zyl had to turn many down. Then there was the new girlfriend whom Pistorius had met on 4 November 2013. Van Zyl said he immediately recognised Steenkamp’s additional marketing potential. “They could have been the South African equivalent of Posh and Becks. We were very aware of that.
When the shooting happened on Valentine’s day last year, two major international firms were on the brink of signing Pistorius as a brand ambassador, deals that would continue beyond his expected retirement in 2017. These, along with existing contracts with the likes of Nike and Oakley sunglasses, were terminated when the athlete was convicted of culpable homicide.
Pistorius was arrested and taken to court to apply for bail. He stood in the dock, head bowed, eyes shut, as dozens of cameras clicked close to his face. He wore a suit and tie but might as well have stood naked. It was a scene of public torment that some observers compared with the medieval desire for justice through the stocks or gallows.
In March this year came “the trial of the century” and, like his most important races, it was broadcast live around the world. The once proud athlete wept, trembled, howled, bent double and vomited as he listened to clinical details of how the hollow-tipped bullets he fired tore into the flesh of Steenkamp. At one point he sobbed so hard that his shirt was “soaking wet” and proceedings had to be halted.
His psychologist, Dr Lore Hartzenberg, told the court: “We are left with a broken man who has lost everything.” Watched by his agonised family, the 27-year-old once dubbed a “pioneer on the posthuman frontier” was reduced to a pathetic shell.
Jaco van Vuuren, an athletics coach who has known Pistorius for 12 years, was also the court sketch artist covering the trial for CNN and other broadcasters. “I’ve got a fondness for history so I like to be in a court,” he said. “There’s an emotion and intensity that no other place can give you. I didn’t expect this to be so severe. Once or twice there was a lump in my throat.
“From the first day when he broke down, it was from hero to zero. Ninety-nine per cent of people would have wanted to be in his position, with all the fame and wealth, before the night of the killing. But 100% of people would not want to be in his position after that night.”
Van Vuuren, 43, spoke to Pistorius regularly during breaks. “What happened that night, I know he regrets it. He would give anything to take that night away. It was a moment of madness and this is the result.
Pistorius’s intimate WhatsApp exchanges with Steenkamp were published and pored over. But nothing was more charged or riveting than the opening of prosecutor Gerrie Nel’s cross-examination of Pistorius, confronting him with the reality of all he had lost. “Mr Pistorius, you were, and still are, one of the most recognised faces in the world, do you agree?” Nel rasped.
“I agree, my lady,” replied the athlete hesitantly, addressing judge Thokozile Masipa.
Nel: “You are a model for sportsmen, able-bodied and disabled, all over the world?”
Pistorius: “I think I was, my lady. But I’ve made a terrible mistake … ”
Nel: “You made a mistake? You killed a person. That’s what you did, isn’t it?”
Pistorius: “I made a mistake, my lady.
Nel: “You killed Reeva Steenkamp. That’s what you did.”
Pistorius: “I made a mistake, my lady.
Nel: “You’re repeating it three times! What was your mistake?
Pistorius: “My mistake was that I took Reeva’s life, my lady.
Nel: “You killed her! You shot and killed her! Why won’t you take responsibility for that?”
Pistorius: “I did, my lady.
Nel: “Say it then! Say ‘Yes, I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp’.
Pistorius: “I did, my lady.
Much has been written about how this was a Greek or Shakespearean fall from grace. Pistorius is Icarus and Oedipus and Macbeth and Othello and Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov and Hardy’s Michael Henchard and Milton’s Satan, “dropped from the zenith like a falling star”. But Nel repeatedly accused of him of refusing to take responsibility for his actions. It is this that persuades Margie Orford, a crime novelist, that he lacks literary grandeur.
“Pistorius’s version is that he did not think when he shot and is therefore not culpable for his crime and that’s why he is not responsible,” she said. “It’s inherently childish and narcissistic. You look at Oedipus, Othello, Macbeth, all of them said they didn’t think but acknowledged they are culpable. They all said, ‘I did that thing’. That’s a tragic hero.
“Pistorius is non-heroic. All that crying was so childish. He’s not a child, he’s a grown man who shot somebody. There’s nothing redeeming about it, only a feeling of shame. A young woman died because a young man was incapable of thinking. He’s the antithesis of those great heroic figures.”
But Pistorius did feed a South African appetite for melodrama. One look at its media shows how the nation careers from giddy heights to the miserable depths, from Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994 and the World Cup in 2010 to the Marikana mine massacre or prophecies of state failure. In this, Pistorius’s descent from the sporting gods to personal hell is a tragic parable.
Jonny Steinberg, an author and academic, said: “The trial has shown how South Africans crave a hero and yet how suspicious they are of their heroes. He seemed to be miraculous. But scratch the surface and he is rotten underneath. Many South Africans feel that way about their country !!