My favourite photograph of Oscar Pistorius was taken when he was a smiling toddler with curly blond hair, sitting on white, tiled steps. It’s only at the second glance that you notice the stumps where the little boy’s feet should be. It’s that wonderful smile. It lights up his face and focuses your attention on what he has, rather than what he lacks. Until a few days ago that sexy, lazy smile of Oscar Pistorius, the golden boy who found little use for the word “failure” and squared up to life’s difficulties, was charming to people the world over.
In July 2005 I met Oscar for the first time, a rather shy matric boy with braces, but the charming smile always visible. At that stage not everyone knew who Oscar was, but his stardom was slowly rising. In a smaller circle he caused quite an uproar when he won a school 100-metre race in 11.72 seconds, faster than the Paralympic world record at the time. Only nine months after he started his athletic career, he set world records in the 200m and 400m for disabled athletes at the Paralympic Games in Athens in September 2004. In the South African Championships in March 2005, Oscar finished sixth in the 400m against able-bodied runners and suddenly everybody took notice of the young man who would later be called “the fastest man on no legs”.
In my article, published in the magazine of a South African Medical aid, I wrote: “Oscar is a very relaxed young man who always takes life in a stride. He is very focused on what he aspires to reach, but without the arrogance that you often find amongst young sport stars.”
On this issue, he was very outspoken: “There is a very fine line between self-confident and arrogant. If you are self-confident and at the same time believe that you are the best, you will reach the top. If you are arrogant, you will always be second. I believe someone that would like to be a champion should set his mind to it. No one will ever reach his goals if he doesn’t think about himself as a champion.”
I was bowled over by this motivated, focused young man, only 18 years old but with wisdom far beyond his years. From the very first moment it was clear that he didn’t like to be treated as a handicapped person.
“I don’t like the term disabled. It’s the wrong approach to regard yourself as being handicapped when you are incompetent in one way. There are so many other things that you can still do. It’s like making a list of all the things in your favour, and all the things that count against you. If the list of things that counts against you only has one entry, but the list of things in your favour is a few pages long, then it is actually very stupid to regard yourself as handicapped, and to see yourself in a negative light.”
From then on I followed Oscar’s athletic career with a keen interest, jubilant with every victory.
In 2007 I met Oscar for the second time. This time I interviewed him for a Christian magazine. Although he would never enthuse about his religion, he easily spoke about the way his mother Sheila, who died in 2001, was a devoted Christian. It was she who taught him more about Jesus and the way he should rely on Him.
“When I lost my mother in 2001, I went through a difficult time and for about a year and a half, I turned away from Jesus. It was difficult to praise God in that time. But it was also a difficult time in my career. And then came the turning point. I started to praise God anew and now everything has changed. My sporting career is on track again. You know what, when you look around you, you will always find someone with a lot more problems than you have.”
On that day, I met him at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria where he was training hard. That day he again emphasised the fact that the line between arrogance and self-confidence is very thin. While we sat and talked in the mild winter sun, Oscar glowed about the fact that he just heard the good news. The IAAF could find no proof his blades provided him with an unfair advantage against able-bodied athletes. Later, the ban against him taking part in races for able-bodied athletes was lifted and the road to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was clear.
That day Oscar also spoke about dreams away from the track. He wanted to get more involved in the rehabilitation of people who had lost limbs in landmine explosions. He had already been to Mozambique to do some work there.
I went home feeling that Oscar Pistorius was still humble, despite a lot of success. For a long time I thought about his response when I asked him: “Do you regard yourself as being blessed, despite your ‘problem’?”
“Indeed. To walk with God implies that you are blessed. That is the biggest prize that you may win in this life and far better than any gold medal. I had a wonderful mother, and a good father that always taught me the right way. Lots of children grow up in houses where their parents aren’t Christians. How would they learn to walk the straight line? But then again, Christians also sometimes feel disheartened and angry, but that is part of our human nature. In the end we should always remember that God is the only one we can trust.”
Since 2007, Oscar’s career has skyrocketed with the highlight probably being the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games.
Sadly it was later, at the Paralympics games, that Oscar revealed an angry side which immediately cast a shadow on my admiration for this strong-willed athlete. He reacted with fury after his shock defeat to Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira in the final of the men’s T44 200 metres and branded the race unfair, referring to the length of Oliveira’s blades.
When he later apologised, I immediately forgave him for whatever he had said and done, feeling that he was completely correct to have complained.
On Thursday morning 14 February I was busy reading good wishes and nice love stories on Facebook. Suddenly everything came to a standstill when my husband burst in with the news that Oscar had shot his girlfriend. Suddenly I felt week in my knees, exactly like I did the day my ex told me about Princess Diana’s death. Shock and disbelieve alternated in my mind. “It can’t be true,” was all that I was thinking. At first I found comfort in reports that he had mistaken her for a burglar. The poor man, was all that I could think. Rewind, rewind, please, can someone only push the rewind button.
But then, slowly but surely, the story unfolded. A tragic, tragic incident, as his family later referred to it.
In the picture of him being taken away to the police station, Oscar has the hood of his silver tracksuit top pulled low over his eyes. Of the beguiling smile there is no sign. The naive, gullible side of me still thinks that somehow there must be a logical explanation for what happened on that fateful morning.
I can’t stop wondering what went wrong. I hope that we will get an answer to this dark riddle. Again and again I keep thinking about what he said to me that day in 2007: “To me it is important that people should respect me as an athlete, but also as a human being. Being a sportsman you have a certain responsibility not to misbehave and to be an example. It’s always nice to speak to children, telling me that I am an inspiration to them.” DM
Alita Steenkamp is a freelance journalist who lives with husband De Wet Potgieter in Centurion. Besides writing articles for a variety of Afrikaans magazines, Alita also has written the autobiographies of Hestrie Cloete Els, My pyn, my glorie, Mathys Roets, Steeds Mathys and Loui Fish, Walking in my Choos. She currently is the guest coordinater for Rian van Heerden’s talk show on kykNET, Rian.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.