Back in 2007, I, like many, had never heard of Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter whom authorities have charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. In June of that year, his representatives reached out, and filled me in on his remarkable story: Pistorius, whose legs were amputated below the knee when he 11 months old, was a Paralympic sprinter who was seeking to become the first double amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics. He was passing through New York City, and his reps wondered if TIME would like to chat with him. I eagerly accepted.
At the time, the IAAF — track and field’s governing body — argued that Pistorius could not run in able-bodied events, since his prosthetics actually gave him an advantage. Pistorius’ challenge of that IAAF stance drew worldwide attention in the months before the 2008 Olympics. The Court of Arbitration for Sport sided with Pistorius in May of 2008, though he did not quality for those Beijing Games. The scientific debate about his prosthetics continued — David Epstein of Sports Illustrated beautifully explains the arguments here. In 2012, Pistorius qualified for the London Olympics, and was a true inspiration.
(PHOTOS: Oscar Pistorius On and Off the Track)
I met Pistorius at a track armory in New York City, and we talked after he worked out. (Below, listen to audio excerpts from the conversation). Listening to that interview now, the contrast is striking: here’s a young man, then 20 years old, laying out what seemed like a far-fetched goal — making the Olympics as a double amputee. Six years later, Pistorius actually pulled it off — wow. But now he has shot and killed his girlfriend — whether the act was intentional, a court will decide — and may spend the rest of his life in prison.
Here, Pistorius argues his case against the IAAF. “They’ve added a certain negative stigma to Paralympic sports,” he says. He also calls the organization “pathetic.” You can also hear why he was a hero to many. “Especially with disabled kids, parents are very protective,” Pistorius says “At the end of the day, you’ve got to learn for yourself, your limits and boundaries. That’s when you end up exceeding expectations, really.”
It’s eerie to hear Pistorius and his agent, Peet van Zyl, talk excitedly about a new Nike campaign they were starting in South Africa: on Feb. 21, Nike suspended its contract with Pistorius. And at one point in the conversation, van Zyl jokes about Pistorius’ popularity with young women. “I’m doing my part for society,” Pistorius says, laughing. It comes across as an innocent joke. But is that quip a sign of something more? Of a super-sized ego? Of an arrogant attitude?
When it comes to Pistorius, there’s just so much we don’t know.
(Listen to audio excerpts from the 2007 interview below)