Updated: Feb. 14, 2013 at 8:10 a.m. EST
The extraordinary life of Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee who ran sprint in the Olympics despite having no legs, appeared to have taken a tragic and bewildering turn Thursday when the police confirmed that he was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. A spokesman for Gauteng police, Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale, said a 26-year-old man had been arrested after a woman was found dead at a house on the private Silverlakes housing estate, where Pistorius lived, in the South African capital Pretoria. “Paramedics declared the woman dead at the scene and police proceeded with their investigation,” said Mogale. “The woman sustained wounds to her head and the upper body.” The AP reported that the victim was shot four times.
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A 9mm pistol was recovered from the scene. Mogale confirmed neither the identity of the arrested man or the dead woman, but said of the arrested man to the Associated Press: “We can’t comment on his emotional well-being, but he is traumatized after losing someone close to him.” South African media quoted other police sources as saying Pistorius had shot dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a 30-year-old swimsuit and lingerie model (Capacity Relations, the agency that represents her, said she was the victim of the shooting). Some reports added Pistorius told police he mistook her for a burglar. Pistorius was to appear at a preliminary hearing at Pretoria magistrates court Thursday, where formal charges will be laid, but that court appearance has now been postponed until Friday. Police in South Africa don’t name suspects in crimes until they’ve appeared in court but police spokesperson Brigadier Denise Beukes said Pistorius was at his home and “there is no other suspect involved.” Beukes also said that there have “previously been allegations of a domestic nature at Mr Pistorius’s home,” and “The SA Police Service were just as surprised this morning to hear on the radio that allegations had been made that the deceased had been perceived to be a burglar. We were very surprised and those allegations did not come from us.”
The shooting is a double tragedy for South Africa. Steenkamp was a rising star in the country, appearing as a cover girl for FHM magazine and on a new reality TV travel show. On Thursday her Twitter feed was full of condolence messages. One of Steenkamp’s own, dated Feb. 10 and referring to an ongoing South African campaign against violence against women was also being widely circulated. “I woke up in a happy safe home this morning. Not everyone did. Speak out against the rape of individual,” she wrote.
It is Pistorius, however, who is a truly global star. Born without a fibula in either leg, both limbs were amputated below the knee before he was one. Using prosthetics, Pistorius nevertheless went on to play sports at high school, particularly rugby, before a knee injury left him on the sidelines. Advised to run to aid his recovery, Pistorius began clocking astonishing times, and was soon beating the then Paralympian world records. Running on carbon fiber blades which mimicked the action of a cheetah, he went on to compete in both the Paralympics and the able-bodied Olympics. From both events at the 2012 Games in London, he collected two Paralympic gold medals and two silvers, broke two world records and one Paralympic record, and competed in an Olympic final and semi-final. Last year, TIME’s sister publication, People, also named him one of the “sexiest men alive.”
A perfectionist, Pistorius credited his drive to his mother, who died when he was 15. The date she passed away is tattooed on his right arm. On his left shoulder are the words: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” And Pistorius’ life, it is true, has been filled with more purpose than most. As someone who demanded to be treated like any other athlete and, like any athlete, who wanted to perform at the highest level, he has been an unprecedented champion for equality and disabled rights. As he climbed the ranks of both disabled and able-bodied sports, while gracing magazine covers and billboards around the world, he became an irresistible argument for changing perceptions of the disabled.
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Despite his global fame, Pistorius never expressed a desire to leave his native South Africa, where violent crime is endemic. A Daily Mail article in 2011 noted that Pistorius kept a machine gun in his bedroom and a pistol by his bedside table. Asked about his chief ambition by the Financial Times the following year, he replied: “I’d like to have a career without regrets. No, what I really mean is that I’d like a life without regrets. I’d like a life in which I made the most of my God-given talents and died without regrets.” That, sadly, now looks like one goal that will be forever out of reach.