Pistorius' sponsors stay loyal
Oscar Pistorius' agent says the athlete was forced to cancel all future races to concentrate on defending murder charges and that all sponsors are 'still onboard.'PT0M0S 620 349
WHEN I looked at a photograph of Oscar Pistorius standing in the dock of the Pretoria Magistrates Court on Friday, his hands raised to his eyes and his head bowed, I was reminded of him in a similar pose in August last year. But the circumstances could not have been more different.
On Friday, he was holding his head in the depths of despair, weeping after having spotted his father, sister and brother in court, weeping as he listened to the prosecutor say he would be charged with premeditated murder, and weeping in anguish because he knew his life was ruined. This was not the Oscar Pistorius I know.
Last August, he was holding his head in jubilation, weeping in disbelief that he had crossed the line in first place in the 4 x 100-metre relay in a Paralympic record, weeping in relief after winning back public adulation following an earlier petulant outburst over the size of Brazilian sprinter Alan Oliveira's running blades, and possibly weeping for joy because he knew he was one of the most popular athletes of his generation. This was the Oscar Pistorius I know.
Remanded in custody ... Oscar Pistorius weeps in court in Pretoria. Photo: AP
Still, I was aware that this poster boy for the Paralympic Games could have flashes of a darker side. I had experienced his anger shortly before the Beijing Paralympic Games. Oscar was at the pre-Games training camp and phoned me, raging about what he perceived to be inadequate training kit.
His fury at the South African management caught me by surprise. Oscar knew he couldn't be ignored, and his anger would ensure his demands were met. I hadn't expected Oscar to be a prima donna.
At the London Games, I was chatting to Oscar's roommate in the athletes' village, Arnu Fourie, who had just won the bronze medal in the 100 metres, edging his good friend Oscar out of the medals. Oscar was genuinely elated at his mate's success. They were obviously very close and I asked Fourie what it was like rooming with Oscar.
Oscar Pistorius on the track. Photo: Reuters
He told me he had been forced to move out, because Oscar was constantly screaming in anger at people on the phone. I thought Fourie was joking and waited for him to smile. But he was serious. I was taken aback. I had never thought of Oscar behaving like that.
I realised he was more complex than I had thought.
I first met Oscar in August 2004, shortly before the South African Paralympic team flew to Athens for the Paralympic Games. I was scheduled to interview one of the team's stalwarts, Fanie Lombard, but he cancelled at the last minute. The team's media manager arrived at the studio with a scrawny kid, a late entry to the team, and told me he was going to be a star.
Oscar Pistorius with girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, who was killed in their home. Photo: Reuters
He looked nothing like a star. He was 17 years old, gawky, face blistered with acne, with braces on his teeth. In previewing the upcoming interview, I mistakenly referred to him as Oscar Pretorius, using the more common Afrikaans surname. During the commercial break, he shyly corrected me: "It's Pistorius, but don't worry, lots of people get it wrong."
I didn't know what his disability was, and tried to guess. Since he had walked languidly into the studio, I had immediately dismissed the idea that he was an amputee. But then he flashed me a grin and pulled up the legs of his jeans to show off a pair of rather battered, flesh-coloured prosthetic limbs.
Years later, he told me this had been his first live radio interview in a studio. He handled the situation with aplomb, as though he were already an established athlete. I remember thinking that if he really was as good as I was being told, if he cleared up the acne and got rid of the braces, if he could stay the way he was – polite, unassuming and naturally charming – he would have a bright future in athletics.
Over the years, I followed his career with a closer interest than I had for other athletes. Oscar certainly had extraordinary talent, and he quickly developed the skills that would eventually make him a sponsor's dream and a darling of the fans. He was always worth watching.
I got to know him better when he asked me to collaborate on a motivational speech. He had arrived back from the Athens Games with a gold and a bronze, and people were starting to take notice. There was a demand for an emotional speech about how he overcame his disability of being born without fibula, or calf bone, in both legs and having his lower limbs amputated shortly before his first birthday. The problem was, to Oscar's bemusement, that he had very little in his life to spark the required emotion.
None of his stories were about hardship or difficulty. He had suffered no rejection or prejudice. He told me the story of a typical, rambunctious little boy, who just happened to have no lower limbs.
He told me his parents – who divorced when he was six – had never treated him as being different to his siblings. While his relationship with his father has been described as "difficult", and Oscar himself has said he is "more of a mate" than a father, his mother, who died when he was just 15, was an inspiration to him, someone who had given him hope and drive. He never thought he couldn't do things because of his disability. He did everything a typical schoolboy would do – and more. He did wrestling, and played football, tennis, rugby and water polo.
As we were writing the speech, desperately looking for something that would reduce his audience to tears or fill them with inspiration, he pulled up his trouser legs to reveal his battered prosthetics, and started to regale me with stories about his childhood based on the gouges, scars, burn marks and grazes on the legs.
His earliest memory was sitting in a go-kart with his brother and racing down a hill near his house at great speed. The kart didn't have brakes, and his job was to jam his prosthetic feet onto the tarmac to slow the kart down. He quickly wore his legs down to stumps.
He pointed to a dark, molten patch on one of the prostheses – the result of his leg resting against the exhaust pipe of a motorbike. He stopped at a convenience store and noticed wisps of smoke. He thought his bike was about to catch fire, until he noticed the plastic on his leg was starting to bubble and he could smell burning rubber.
He pointed to a series of scratch marks – the result of exploring some open veld near his house with friends and having to climb through a barbed wire fence. His friends emerged bleeding and in pain. Oscar just laughed.
He pointed to a small, deep hole – the result of falling off his motorbike at speed. It hadn't hurt because his leg took the brunt of the fall.
He recalled the punishment meted out after he and some classmates had run 5.6 kilometres naked from his school – the prestigious Pretoria Boys High – to the Union Buildings, the seat of government in South Africa. When the culprits were rounded up, they were made to do ballet and stand on tiptoe. As his classmates collapsed with burning calf muscles, Oscar happily stood on his prosthetics with his arms in a Swan Lake pose.
When he was picked on for his lack of lower limbs, it was in rugby matches where opponents mistakenly thought he couldn't run fast and he was constantly targeted.
When Fanie Lombard, the most medalled track and field South African Paralympian, heard about the kid with no legs who had an astonishing turn of speed, he went to visit him at Pretoria Boys High. He was so impressed that he organised a pair of running blades for Oscar to test.
Oscar remembers the day he strapped them on and ran the 100 metres in 11.72 seconds. It was January 28, 2004. He was recovering from a rugby injury and had shown no interest in athletics. That day changed it all. When he researched the world 100-metre record for double-leg amputees, he thought the website was out of date. He had broken the record without even trying.
That was the Oscar I knew. He made out that his achievements had come easy to him, even when they hadn't. He turned into one of the most dedicated, hard-working and professional athletes.
His legendary fight and determination drove him to taking on the authorities and winning his right to compete alongside able-bodied athletes, as he did in the London Olympics. He lost the geekiness, his skin cleared up, the braces were removed. He turned his puppy fat into muscle, honed his body, improved his speed and became the athlete I remember enthralling the world at the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Despite being a global icon, with sponsors falling over themselves, the Oscar I know never lost his boyish charm and warm friendliness. He berated me for not being at the Beijing Paralympic Games, where he won a hat-trick of gold medals, and made me promise to be at the London Games.
I watched with a mixture of pride and amazement as Oscar worked the media like the seasoned professional he had become. When he saw me for the first time after one of his heats, he stopped being the poster boy. He became the Oscar I know, excitedly giving me a sweaty hug and insisting on a photograph to mark the occasion.
I had brought to the Games a teddy bear mascot from a Johannesburg school for special needs children, and Oscar insisted on a photograph with the bear. Every time I saw him, the bear was back at my hotel.
The night before his final race, the 400 metres, the event which would bring the curtain down on the greatest period of his illustrious career, he was having physiotherapy in the athletes' village. I was visiting the South African base and had the mascot with me. At a time when any other athlete would have been preoccupied with this crucial race, Oscar was the person I had always known – friendly, warm, accessible. "Bud, where's the bear?" he yelled, demanding his photo for the kids at the special needs school.
The dark side to Oscar was always unsettling, simply because I had never experienced it. I had only read about it. I knew he had developed a reputation for being arrogant and aloof, although never to me.
I heard he was quick to anger. I heard the stories about him threatening to shoot a former national footballer who had crossed his path. I knew about his reckless motorboat accident three years ago, which left his face torn to shreds. I knew that he had spent the night in jail, accused of assaulting a woman at a party at his house. The case was subsequently dropped, but it left a mark on his reputation.
What happened that night at his Pretoria home last week will come out in the upcoming court case. What we do know is that a woman is dead. Reeva Steenkamp, 29, was a law graduate establishing herself as a top model and aspiring television star.
Her death is so utterly senseless. I didn't know her, but she, like Oscar, was much loved, with a sparkling future ahead of her. For both of them, this ended so tragically with four gunshots.
David O'Sullivan is a presenter at Talk Radio 702, a Johannesburg radio station.