Last Aug. 4, on a blustery Saturday morning in London, I sat up high in the jam-packed Olympic Stadium, gazing down in wonderment as sporting history unfolded on the track and field surface below me.
Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet, had blazed through his first heat in the 100 meters half an hour earlier. Over in the pole vault pits, our own Jenn Suhr was in the early stages of a grueling qualifying round.
But the day's real drama was about to occur, as Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee ever to compete in an Olympic track event, settled into the starting blocks for the start of his 400-meter heat.
There are moments at an Olympics that stick with you forever. This, surely, would be one of them. Watching Pistorius surge from behind on his carbon fiber prosthetic blades, with a crowd of 80,000 cheering him on, I felt a rush of emotion. I was close to tears when he crossed the finish line and realized his goal of making the semifinals.
That day, I called Pistorius “an inspiration to all of us,” a reason to “rethink the possible.” I said he looked like a superhero on his blades, and imagined “all the physically challenged kids out there, silently rooting for him and thanking him for his courage.”
What do you suppose those kids are thinking now? Once a man has lifted people's hopes and spirits to the heavens, how do you make sense of it when he comes crashing to the ground?
Pistorius stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in the early hours of Valentine's Day at his mansion near Pretoria. Pistorius says he thought he was shooting at an intruder when he fired four shots through a locked bathroom door and killed Steenkamp.
Prosecutors say it was premeditated murder, a charge that could put the double amputee in prison for life. The judge finally granted Pistorius bail on Friday. He is scheduled to be tried on June 4. Pistorius can afford the best lawyers. The lead prosecutor has been dismissed because he is facing attempted murder charges in another case.
The Pistorius case is drawing inevitable parallels to the O.J. Simpson trial, which also involved a glorified athlete accused of killing his beautiful blonde partner. Like the O.J. case, it has been complicated by shoddy police work, and the trial is certain to be a similar media sensation.
In any event, people will never again see the Blade Runner in the same heroic light. I find his explanation of the killing implausible. I'd sooner believe that Manti T'eo was a gullible dupe.
Yes, South Africa is a nation wracked by guns and violence, a place where wealthy homeowners live in fear of armed break-ins. But it's hard to swallow the notion that Pistorius didn't know who was behind that bathroom door when he began shooting.
Back at the Olympics, I said Pistorius “ran with the angels.” Now we're left to contemplate his inner demons, to wonder about his reported obsession with guns, the bloody bat that was reportedly removed from his home, and allegations of previous domestic squabbles with Steenkamp, his supermodel girlfriend.
In the mixed zone after the 400-meter heat in London, I stood two feet from Pistorius, crushed against the media barrier, leaning on every word as he talked about his “blessings” and how nervous and proud he had been to represent his country well.
But six months later, South Africa's Olympic and Paralympic hero has focused attention on that country's troubles — on the gun problem, the epidemic of violence against women, the high rate of unsolved murders, the deplorable and dangerous state of Pretoria's prisons.
So once again, an athletic icon has been exposed as all too human.
There seems no end to it these days. Joe Paterno. Lance Armstrong. Junior Seau, Tiger Woods. Manti T'eo. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and all the baseball cheats.
I've said it too many times lately: Athletic achievement does not equal virtue. And we should amend that. Serious illness or disability doesn't necessarily make an athlete more virtuous, either.
Their feats can be extraordinary, the inspiration they provide to fans real and lasting. That makes it even more difficult for people to reconcile their feelings when their heroes fall.
Armstrong became a hero to the cancer community after recovering to win those seven Tour de France cycling titles. He was exposed as a liar and a cheat and a fraud. Armstrong used his status as heroic survivor to build a personal worth estimated at $125 million. The government is suing to recover some of the money he earned while representing the U.S. Postal Service racing team.
Pistorius was a hero to the disabled. The adulation was real, though he would have trouble relating to some poor soul trying to scrape by on a monthly SSI check. Pistorius' personal wealth is estimated at around $5 million. During the Olympics, I was struck by the presence of full-page advertisements featuring Pistorius in the London newspapers. He had cashed in big before he competed.
I love the Olympics. They can bring out the best in people and give us moments to treasure. But the money and the drug scandals have made it increasingly difficult to see through to the pure Olympic ideal. Last August in London, I thought I saw it running on blades.
Once again, sadly, it turned out to be a little more complicated than that.