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For all its defenses, it failed to keep violence at bay. By Pistorius' account, his fear of an intruder, the fear that keeps the people of South Africa apart still, caused the man so many saw as a unifying figure to shoot his girlfriend dead.
If South Africa reveals its reality through crime, it articulates its dreams through sports. When in 1995--a jittery year after the end of apartheid--South Africa's first black President, Nelson Mandela, adopted the Afrikaner game, rugby, and cheered the national team on to a World Cup win, he was judged to have held the country together. In 2010 his successors in the ANC delivered the message that Africa was the world's newest emerging market and open for business through the faultless staging of a soccer World Cup.
Pistorius was the latest incarnation of South African hope. He was born without a fibula in either leg, and both were amputated below the knee before he reached his first birthday. Using prosthetics, Pistorius went on to play able-bodied sports at Pretoria Boys High School, one of the country's most prestigious private schools, before a knee injury left him on the sidelines. Advised to run for his recovery, he began clocking astonishing times using carbon-fiber blades that copied the action of a cheetah. In 2012 in London, he took two Paralympic gold medals and one silver and ran in an Olympic final and semifinal.
Pistorius credits his drive to his mother, who died at 42 when he was 15. He has the dates of her life tattooed in Roman numerals on his right arm, and by his account Sheila Pistorius did much to stamp the Afrikaner spirit of the devout, stubborn pioneer on her son. Just before the 11-month-old Pistorius underwent the operation to remove his lower legs, she wrote a letter for him to read when he was older. "The real loser is never the person who crosses the finishing line last," she wrote. "The real loser is the person who sits on the side. The person who does not even try to compete."
Pistorius has said he remembers Sheila, a working single mother who had divorced his father, shouting to her children as they got ready to leave the house, "Get your shoes! And Oscar, get your legs!" By giving him no special treatment or pity but showing no hint of underestimating him either, Sheila gave her son a belief not just that he was normal but also that he was special--divinely destined for the extraordinary. After he became an athlete, Pistorius chose a second tattoo for his left shoulder, the words of 1 Corinthians 9:26--27: "I do not run like a man running aimlessly."
In a long battle with other athletes and sporting authorities, who argued that his prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage, he demanded to be treated like any other athlete--and succeeded as few ever had. Cool, handsome and impeccably dressed in appearances on magazine covers and billboards the world over, he forever altered perceptions of the disabled and even altered the word's meaning--an ambition Pistorius encapsulated in his mantra: "You're not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have."