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Oscar Pistorius case highlights pitfalls of sudden Olympic fame

  • Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 en route to appear in court charged with murder.  Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was taken into custody and was expected to appear in court Thursday, after a 30-year-old woman who was believed to be his girlfriend was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Chris Collingridge) SOUTH AFRICA OUT

    Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 en route to appear in court charged with murder. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was taken into custody and was expected to appear in court Thursday, after a 30-year-old woman who was believed to be his girlfriend was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Chris Collingridge) SOUTH AFRICA OUT

  • Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Pistorius was taken into custody after a 30-year-old woman, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot dead at his home. (AP Photo)

    Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Pistorius was taken into custody after a 30-year-old woman, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot dead at his home. (AP Photo)

  • In this Nov. 4,  2012 photo, South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, believed to be his girlfriend, at an awards ceremony, in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was taken into custody and was expected to appear in court Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013,  after a 30-year-old woman who was believed to be his girlfriend was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Lucky Nxumalo-Citypress) SOUTH AFRICA OUT

    In this Nov. 4, 2012 photo, South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, believed to be his girlfriend, at an awards ceremony, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was taken into custody and was expected to appear in court Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, after a 30-year-old woman who was believed to be his girlfriend was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Lucky Nxumalo-Citypress) SOUTH AFRICA OUT

  • FILE - In this Aug.  5, 2012 file photo, South Africa's Oscar Pistorius starts in the men's 400-meter semifinal during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs.  Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

    FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2012 file photo, South Africa's Oscar Pistorius starts in the men's 400-meter semifinal during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

  • FILE - This is a Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 file photo of South Africa's Oscar Pistorius  as he reacts after finishing first in a men's 400-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London  Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday Feb. 14. 2013 with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

    FILE - This is a Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 file photo of South Africa's Oscar Pistorius as he reacts after finishing first in a men's 400-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday Feb. 14. 2013 with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

  • CORRECTS THE SPELLING OF REEVA This is an undated portfolio photo supplied by Ice Model Management in Johannesburg of Reeva Steenkamp,  during a photo shoot. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs.  Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said.  (AP Photo/Ice Model Management) EDITORIAL PURPOSE ONLY

    CORRECTS THE SPELLING OF REEVA This is an undated portfolio photo supplied by Ice Model Management in Johannesburg of Reeva Steenkamp, during a photo shoot. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said. (AP Photo/Ice Model Management) EDITORIAL PURPOSE ONLY

  • This is an undated portfolio photo supplied by Ice Model Management in Johannesburg of Reeva Steenkamp,  during a photo shoot. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs.  Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said.  (AP Photo/Ice Model Management) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

    This is an undated portfolio photo supplied by Ice Model Management in Johannesburg of Reeva Steenkamp, during a photo shoot. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said. (AP Photo/Ice Model Management) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

  • This aerial image taken from video provided by VNS24/7 on Thursday Feb. 14, 2013, shows the home of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in a gated housing complex in Pretoria, South Africa. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend, police and the woman's talent agent said Thursday. (AP Photo/VNS24/7)

    This aerial image taken from video provided by VNS24/7 on Thursday Feb. 14, 2013, shows the home of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in a gated housing complex in Pretoria, South Africa. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend, police and the woman's talent agent said Thursday. (AP Photo/VNS24/7)

  • Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 en route to appear in court charged with murder.  Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was taken into custody and was expected to appear in court Thursday, after a 30-year-old woman who was believed to be his girlfriend was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Chris Collingridge) SOUTH AFRICA OUT
  • Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Pistorius was taken into custody after a 30-year-old woman, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot dead at his home. (AP Photo)
  • In this Nov. 4,  2012 photo, South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, believed to be his girlfriend, at an awards ceremony, in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was taken into custody and was expected to appear in court Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013,  after a 30-year-old woman who was believed to be his girlfriend was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Lucky Nxumalo-Citypress) SOUTH AFRICA OUT
  • FILE - In this Aug.  5, 2012 file photo, South Africa's Oscar Pistorius starts in the men's 400-meter semifinal during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs.  Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)
  • FILE - This is a Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 file photo of South Africa's Oscar Pistorius  as he reacts after finishing first in a men's 400-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London  Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday Feb. 14. 2013 with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
  • CORRECTS THE SPELLING OF REEVA This is an undated portfolio photo supplied by Ice Model Management in Johannesburg of Reeva Steenkamp,  during a photo shoot. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs.  Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said.  (AP Photo/Ice Model Management) EDITORIAL PURPOSE ONLY
  • This is an undated portfolio photo supplied by Ice Model Management in Johannesburg of Reeva Steenkamp,  during a photo shoot. Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs.  Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said.  (AP Photo/Ice Model Management) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
  • This aerial image taken from video provided by VNS24/7 on Thursday Feb. 14, 2013, shows the home of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in a gated housing complex in Pretoria, South Africa. Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend, police and the woman's talent agent said Thursday. (AP Photo/VNS24/7)

Oscar Pistorius was 1 when his deformed legs were amputated, 6 when his parents divorced, and 15 when his mother died. Life trained him to overcome adversity. And when he set world records running on artificial legs and competed in the 2012 London Olympics against able-bodied athletes, his story inspired the world.

Pistorius was a hero to the disabled, and to a nation struggling to develop into a modern democracy after decades of violence and racial oppression under apartheid. Yesterday, he plummeted from that pedestal, charged with murdering his girlfriend inside his home in South Africa.

The 26-year-old track star had been dating Reeva Steenkamp, 30, a model about to debut on a reality television show, for a few months; she had tweeted her excitement about Valentine’s Day on Wednesday. When the police arrived at Pistorius’s house in the middle of the night, they found Steenkamp with multiple gunshot wounds and took the Paralympic champion into custody.

It was a grim version of an all-too-familiar tale: the sudden fall of an athlete who helped others follow their dreams, whose influence far transcended his sport. Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, too, inspired millions, especially young African Americans and cancer survivors.

Each time one of these icons stumbles, it raises the question: Do we expect too much of them? Do we somehow set them up for these crashes?

Years of athletic training prepared Pistorius, who was born without fibula bones, to run at world-class speed on carbon-fiber blades, but it may not have prepared him for sudden celebrity and wealth.

“He crossed a huge bridge by making it clear that people with disabilities could perform not just in classes of their own but in normal, world-class settings,” said Timothy Shriver, chief executive of the Special Olympics.

Exactly what happened yesterday is unclear. The suspect and the victim were the only ones in the house, the police said. Pistorius was scheduled to appear in court for a bail hearing today; the police said they would oppose bail.

Shriver said it is too soon to draw conclusions about the case. But, he said, young star athletes often have a hard time handling sudden “fame and attention and money.”

Four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon said Pistorius’s name would have been the last to come to mind if someone had told him that a track athlete had been charged with murder. “Not the second-to-last, not the third-to-last,” the retired sprinter told the Associated Press. “The very last.” Pistorius, he said, “exudes class. He’s gracious. He’s humble.”

Known as the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius is a revered figure in South Africa. The nation roared for him during his historic appearance at the London Olympics, where he became the first double-amputee sprinter to compete.

But it was his personal story that turned him into the country’s most heroic figure since Nelson Mandela, said Justice Malala, a prominent political analyst and commentator in South Africa.

“In a country where the image of Mandela is starting to fade, we are always looking for a hero – and this guy was it,” Malala said. “He is a symbol of hope. He came along and said, ‘You can do it. You can do anything.’ And it really lifted people up, across racial lines.”

Ancilla Smith, a spokeswoman for Special Olympics in South Africa, said South Africans identified with Pistorius because “he has become a symbol of overcoming adversity, which is pretty much what South Africa is all about.”

The sight of Pistorius, hiding his face in the hood of his sweatshirt on his way out of a police station yesterday, “rocked the country,” Smith said.

“The reverberations are enormous,” she said.

Early yesterday, reports circulated in the South African media that Pistorius mistakenly shot Steenkamp thinking she was a burglar. Other reports said the shooting occurred after a loud argument.

Crime and violence remain huge problems in South Africa. Even in middle-class neighborhoods, many people live in gated communities behind electrified fences and high walls, fearing intruders. Gun ownership is common. And violence against women is rampant; the country is still reeling from an incident last week in which a 17-year-old girl was gang-raped and killed.

Pistorius won gold and bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. He began competing internationally against able-bodied athletes in 2007. Other athletes soon complained that his carbon-fiber Cheetah prosthetic blades gave him an unfair advantage.

International sporting officials ruled in Pistorius’s favor in 2008, but not in time for him to compete in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. At the Paralympic Games that year, he won three gold medals.

In London in 2012, he won two golds and a silver at the Paralympic Games. And he competed for the first time in the Olympic Games, running for South Africa in the 4x400-meter relay; he did not win a medal.

He holds two Paralympic world records and is tied for a third.

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