blue uggs The making and unmaking of Oscar Pistorius
He was one of the world’s most successful sportsmen, an inspiration to millions, but now Oscar Pistorius is serving a five year sentence for killing his girlfriend.
A year on from his conviction for culpable homicide, or manslaughter, he has been transferred to house arrest, yet his legal battles are far from over as lawyers now argue over whether he should have been found guilty of murder.
The second part of the race is an 800m run, and the route stretches ahead of them under a blue Johannesburg sky. As the five young racers pass the netball courts, they leave behind the concrete path and feel the soft grass of the school playing fields underfoot. Cheyne is in front, carrying Oscar’s prosthetic legs under his arms.
The life of Pistorius can be seen in two arcs. There is one story of extraordinary determination how this boy with no evident running talent at 12 somehow scaled the heights of sport in just a few years. But the second story is how that innocent boy became, as weeks of testimony in court suggested, a man plagued by his temper, with a reckless love for guns and speed condemned by the judge as “negligent” when he pulled the trigger.
In one of Oscar’s earliest memories, he hurtled down a hill near his home, in his brother Carl’s go kart, as the two of them began a lifelong passion for speed they were “adrenalin junkies”, Pistorius later wrote in his autobiography, Blade Runner.
As the wall at the bottom of the hill loomed in front of them, with no brakes on the kart, Carl grabbed Oscar’s prosthetic leg, yanked it off and pushed it into the wheel to bring the vehicle to a sudden stop.
This narrow escape did nothing to dampen his new addiction aged four he was riding mini motorbikes. Soon after he was racing his father at go karting. Aged 15, he was driving his brother’s Golf, and as an adult a speedboating accident nearly ended his career.
This hotheaded adventurousness in the young boy was partly encouraged by his family, who were determined that his disability would not make him a spectator in life. In the Pistorius family, who lived in a comfortable part of Johannesburg, no one was allowed to say “I can’t.”
Born with no fibulas the smaller of the two lower leg bones Oscar’s legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. Six months later, he received his first prosthetics, a defining moment in his life, he later said. This plaster and mesh fitted with a lycra “skin” was a liberation. Immediately, he says, he felt invincible and his energy was boundless.
“I believe that it was at this time in my life that my personality was shaped, and that my family was instrumental in laying the foundation stones of my competitive nature, and of the man that I am today,” he wrote in Blade Runner.
His mother was a huge influence. She put inspirational notes into the lunchboxes of her children, and one letter she wrote for him he still keeps: “The real loser is never the person who crosses the finishing line last. The real loser is the person who sits on the side, the person who does not even try to compete.”
Getting ready for school, she would say: “Carl, put on your shoes. Oscar, put on your legs.” He was different, but equal.
In fact, the young Oscar didn’t feel different at all. “This was because of the way his mother brought him up as a kid. He has a spirit that is completely different because he was born that way. Without knowing what it feels like to be normal,
you feel normal.”
As well as providing an emergency brake for go karts, there were other advantages to prosthetic legs. Oscar never had to wear cricket pads and he could leave his leg dangling against a hot oven and not suffer terrible burns. Children at the beach marvelled at his small round footprints, while opponents on the rugby field who tackled him were left clutching an artificial limb.
A major inspiration was a teacher at Constantia Kloof, Tessa Shellard, who encouraged him to take part in sports, even putting him in the school team for a prestigious nationwide triathlon series, despite him not being the best athlete.
“I gave him the opportunity that maybe others didn’t give him. I saw a youngster with a disability but one who had it within himself to persevere. He was like a little hero in my heart that, at that young age, he gave so much.”
He usually gave it everything, even though he often came last. That biathlon race, in which he was carried by his friends, came on a day when his prosthetics were hurting him and so they hatched a plan to spare him the pain.
Oscar was bubbly and full of energy, says Shellard, and in 2007 he came back to the school and signed a photo of the two of them, writing: “Times of change, memories still the same, thank you for all the times you helped me up.”
Aged nine, he had his first fist fight over a girl and more followed. The family’s response? His father and grandfather taught him how to box. This was the time when he first learned to defend himself, he says, and he later proved on several occasions that he was never slow in lashing out, usually verbally, at people who annoyed him. The most public example was when, after defeat in the 200m at the London Paralympics, he accused Brazilian Alan Oliveira of using illegal blades an incident captured on live TV.
Despite this pluckiness, he showed little sporting talent in his early teens. That didn’t shine until Pretoria Boys School, when he was able to use much lighter prosthetics, thanks to a family friend and design engineer, Chris Hatting.
Initially it was endurance running, not sprinting, that interested him. He was showing ability in 10km races, and enjoying rugby and water polo. His discovery of sports in which he could properly compete, not just take part, meant his schooldays were generally happy but three life changing events cast a more sombre light on these years.
The first was the divorce of his parents, which meant Oscar and his siblings were separated from their father and lived with their mother in a smaller house. Perhaps as a way to bridge this distance, his father bought Oscar and Carl a small speedboat and his sons found yet another means to race against each other this time on water skis.
Then in March 2002 his mother Sheila died. To the 15 year old it felt like his world’s guiding light had been extinguished. He has the dates of her birth and death tattooed on his right arm.
“Sheila valued each of her children for their individual talents and was proud of them,” says Oscar’s aunt, Diana Binge.
“Strict, loving, spontaneous and always game for fun, she was also a devout Christian who brought her children up to observe the Christian way of life,
something she tried to demonstrate in her own relationships.
“She was open about Oscar’s disability and shared her experience in bringing Oscar up in order to encourage other parents of disabled children. Oscar has continued her legacy of helping others.