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News of Pistorius case leaves many in disbelief

Source : AP
Last Updated: Fri, Feb 15, 2013 06:18 hrs
Oscar Pistorius

Classy, gracious, humble.

That was Oscar Pistorius. Before Thursday, Ato Boldon said, Pistorius' name would have been the last to come to mind if someone told him a track athlete was charged with murder.

"Not the second-to-last, not the third-to-last," the retired sprinter said. "The very last."

Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist and NBC analyst, spent Thursday morning exchanging shocked text messages and social media posts with his cohorts in the track community. They knew the double-amputee from South Africa as a transcendent figure who reminded fans of sports' greatest virtues.



Then came the news, just six months after Pistorius competed at the Olympics on his carbon-fiber blades, that he was arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend.

"He exudes class. He's gracious. He's humble," said Boldon, who felt he knew Pistorius well.

At what was supposed to be a celebration of elite track athletes, several American stars found themselves answering questions about Pistorius at a news conference in Manhattan promoting Saturday's Millrose Games.

Nick Symmonds, who finished fifth in the 800 meters in London, is friendly with Pistorius. He learned the news when he woke up at 6 a.m. and turned on the TV.

"I was just shocked like everybody else," he said. "We're going to have to let the courts down in South Africa sort out the facts."

In a sport that struggles to stay relevant in the U.S. for the four years between Olympics, Pistorius drew in fans who may never have even watched a race. On this day, track was all over the news for the most horrible of reasons.

Symmonds didn't want to sound callous in mentioning the sport's past doping scandals in a conversation about a murder investigation. But he acknowledged a strange sense of relief that at least this negative news didn't involve positive drug tests.

Said Boldon: "It really bothers me that it seems our biggest headlines as a sport are always, always, always negative headlines."

"There are housewives and kids that couldn't name another track and field athlete — and some of them who probably couldn't name another athlete, certainly in South Africa — who know the name Oscar Pistorius and know his story and feel like they were along on that amazing journey with him last summer," Boldon added.

Bernard Lagat, owner of six outdoor world championship medals, is often called an ambassador for the sport with his outgoing personality. He doesn't know Pistorius well, but feels the ache of a dark day for track.

He wants fans' reactions to be: "Did you see that? Did you see that world record? Did you see that amazing marathon?" When the attention has nothing to do with such feats, Lagat said, "that's the saddest thing."

The sadness was felt all the way to the small Italian town of Gemona. It was on a new track in the northeastern corner of the country that Pistorius trained last year for his Olympic debut.

"It's come as a huge shock to everyone who knew him," Mayor Paolo Urbani told The Associated Press.

"He's a delightful person, not only as a sportsman but also how he is as a human being," Urbani added.

Pistorius fought for years to be able to compete against able-bodied athletes after many said his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He finally won his case in 2008.

He made South Africa's team for the 2012 London Olympics, reaching the semifinals in the 400 meters and then running on the 4x400 relay squad in the final.

The International Olympic Committee, International Paralympic Committee and South African Olympic committee said they were not yet in position to comment, other than to offer condolences to the families.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones because of a congenital defect and had his legs amputated at 11 months. But he still played sports, including rugby. He dominated at the Paralympics before becoming the first double amputee to compete on the track at the Olympics.

Former Italian pole vaulter Andrea Giannini coached Pistorius from 2009-11.

"I'm hoping it was just a tragic accident," he told the AP. "He's a marvelous person, a really sweet and calm guy. It seemed like this was a calm time for him. He seemed really happy and well-balanced."

Boldon had spent enough time with Pistorius that he felt he could confidently say the "Blade Runner" hardly seemed capable of murder.

"There's nothing in his past, at all — at least that we knew, the public and the track and field fraternity — that gave any indication that anything like this was remotely possible," Boldon said.

Pistorius lived out dream by running at Olympics

The figure of Oscar Pistorius racing around the Olympic track with his carbon-fiber blades whipping through the air was one of the enduring images of the London Games.

That was only six months ago, when the double-amputee from South Africa emerged as an example of what a person can achieve in the face of adversity.

He didn't win a medal, but the "Blade Runner" reveled in in his Olympic moment and was cheered throughout the world for his achievement. On Tuesday, still basking in the glow, Pistorius tweeted a photo from London of himself with eventual 400-meter gold medalist Kirani James, who asked for Pistorius' bib as a souvenir after running in the same semifinal heat.

"Still on(e) of my fondest memories of the Olympics.. Kirani and I exchanging (numbers)," wrote Pistorius, who was eliminated in that semifinal race.

Two days after that tweet, Pistorius was charged with the murder of his girlfriend after model Reeva Steenkamp was shot inside his home in South Africa.

The images from last August and Thursday could hardly be more contrasting — a sporting hero at the peak of career and a criminal suspect hiding in his hooded sweatshirt — leaving the world to wonder how Pistorius' life could have come to this.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones due to a congenital defect, and had his legs amputated at 11 months. But his condition never stopped him from playing sports with prosthetics, and he took to rugby in high school. It was after injuring his knee on the pitch that he first took to the track. And very quickly he became one of the best.

The carbon-fiber blades that he uses to run led to years of controversy. By the time he had already won a gold medal at the 2004 Paralympics, Pistorius was banned from competing against able-bodied peers because many argued that his blades gave him an unfair advantage.

In 2008, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared him to compete against the fastest in the world.

It was the Olympics that he wanted, but he failed to run the qualifying time for the 2008 Beijing Games. Instead, he won the 100, 200 and 400 at the Paralympics in China as he was quickly becoming a star around the world.

In his life off the track, Pistorius called himself a "speed freak." He told The Associated Press on several occasions about his love of riding powerful motorcycles, but gave up that hobby in 2009 after he injured his head in a boat accident.

"There was a lot of refocus after that. I had this motorboat accident and I was in hospital for two weeks and spent the next four weeks at home," Pistorius told the AP. "I just realized that I need to make some changes and some of them need to be with my lifestyle. I was messing around a lot with motorbikes and just playing around and taking unnecessary risks."

He has also boasted to the AP about having cage fighters as friends, and was open about his ownership of guns. He tweeted a photo of himself at a shooting range in November 2011, bragging about his score.

"Had a 96% headshot over 300m from 50shots! Bam!" he tweeted.

Two years after his boating accident, Pistorius finally got to compete on the big stage, running on South Africa's 4x400 relay team at the 2011 world championships. Although he was dropped from the final, he won a silver medal because he competed in the heats.

By the time the London Olympics came around, Pistorius made the grade, and he could barely believe that he would become the first double amputee to compete on the track at the Olympics.

"I think I woke up the next morning with cramps in my cheeks. I was smiling in my sleep," Pistorius told the AP last year in an interview at his training base in northeastern Italy.

He ran the first heat of the 400 on Aug. 4 in 45.44 seconds — his fastest time of the season — putting him into the semifinals. A day later, he finished last in the semifinal heat, crossing the line in 46.54 and failing to move on, but loved it just the same.

"It just felt really magical," Pistorius said that day. "If I could predict what it would feel like or imagine beyond my wildest dreams, this was probably 10 times that.

"To step out in front of a crowd this massive, it's a mind-blowing experience," he added. "I've had support in the last couple of days like I have never felt before."

Pistorius later ran in the 4x400 relay, barely. The South African team was at first eliminated in the first round after a collision with the Kenyans. Pistorius was left standing on the track in disappointment because the baton never got to him.

But after an appeal, the Kenyans were disqualified and South Africa was given a reprieve, added to the final as a rare ninth team. Pistorius ran that time, anchoring his country's team, but the South Africans ended up eighth.

"This whole experience was amazing ... to step out here in an Olympic final is more than I could have ever hoped for," Pistorius said after that race. "That opportunity to come here once again and finish today and not yesterday is a dream come true."

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