Oscar Pistorius established a new standard for disadvantaged athletes when he earned the right to run in the 2012 Olympics on his prosthetic legs. He was known and admired worldwide as the "Blade Runner."
Then, on Feb. 14, 2013, he shot and killed his girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp. John Carlin's book about the life of Pistorius, the killing of Steenkamp and the trial that followed is titled "Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius."
Carlin joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to discuss his new book.
Highlights from Bill's Interview with John Carlin
BL: You say in the book, "running had shaped the public identity" of Oscar Pistorius and "raised him to impossible heights." I've even heard it said that he was second only to Nelson Mandela in the way he was admired in his home country. Does that ring true to you?
JC: Yes, I would say that's right. Nelson Mandela obviously stands head and shoulders above everybody else in South Africa. But certainly in recent years the only person who really remotely competed with Mandela in terms of national acclaim in South Africa was Oscar Pistorius — who was viewed as a great example and as a heroic figure across all the racial and religious and ideological lines that make up the South African "rainbow nation."
BL: Still, before he shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp, Oscar Pistorius may have been guilty of firing a gun out the sunroof of a car. Two companions said that he had done that. He certainly was guilty of discharging a gun in a restaurant. And he was a notoriously fast — many said reckless — driver. Were his admirers unaware of all that?
JC: Well, that's a very good question. See, I think the tendency of the media, by and large, was to nourish that image — that heroic image — and shy away from elements of Pistorius' personality that might have undermined that heroic image. It was only after he killed Reeva Steenkamp when suddenly the impulse became the opposite impulse. It was then that we started hearing more and more about his crazed, reckless obsession with guns, how he would drive cars at 160 mph down public highways. Before it had been kept largely hidden from the public eye.
BL: On that Valentine's Day evening in 2013, Oscar Pistorius claimed that he thought an intruder had climbed into his home via the bathroom window and then locked himself in the bathroom. Pistorious said he feared for his life when he fired four times into the bathroom door. You've done all the homework for this book. Do you now find that claim credible?
JC: Well, put it this way: I find it less completely and utterly incredible than I did at the beginning. When I first heard Pistorius' version, it just seemed to me like a very, very unlikely story. However, I began to get a much broader sense of Pistorius's character and to see how extraordinarily fearful and vulnerable he was and how indeed — contrary to the image of the superhero that he'd been so eager to project — he was actually, of course, in truth, a man who went to bed at night without his prosthetic legs on. In a country where it's pretty normal to be paranoid because of the high crime rate, he was more paranoid than most.
In a country where it's pretty normal to be paranoid because of the high crime rate, he was more paranoid than most.John Carlin
And so, while even now I consider the story to be so implausible, I do not completely rule it out as a possibility. And in fact, having sat through the whole trial and seeing how little evidence, how unconvincing the prosecution was, my view now is that both stories are extraordinarily implausible. And I'm not going to stand here, as a lot of people do, and tell you categorically that I know what happened that night.
BL: Oscar Pistorius was convicted in September of "culpable homicide." You maintain that "the outcry" after the sentencing, where he was sentenced to only five years in prison, would have been "far greater if the judge ... had been male and white," rather than female and black. Talk a little bit about that.
JC: One of the really fascinating aspects of this whole trial is that here you have the most famous white man in South Africa being tried by a black lady judge. Now, the reaction of Pistorius's defense team and, indeed, Pistorius's family was some dismay because they imagined, among other things, that there would be a predisposition on the part of the judge to assume this fell into the category of domestic violence, of gender violence.
Had it been a white male judge, I think we can be pretty confident that there would have been far more of an outcry and far more of a notion that there'd been an element of racial favoritism here and so forth. So I think it proved, somewhat paradoxically I think, to be to Pistorius's favor.
Bill's Thoughts On "Chase Your Shadow"
[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Chase Your Shadow'" width="630" align="right"]Read an excerpt from John Carlin's "Chase Your Shadow."[/sidebar]In "Chase Your Shadow," John Carlin examines Pistorius' life before and after the night upon which Pistorius fired four shots into the bathroom door in his home.
Pistorius said he believed an intruder had entered his home through a window in the bathroom, and that he was protecting himself and Reeva Steenkamp when he opened fire and killed Steenkamp. After the trial, which Carlin examines in great detail, Pistorius was found guilty of "culpable homicide" (rather than murder) and sentenced to five years in prison.
Carlin resists drawing conclusions about exactly what Oscar Pistorius was thinking when he fired the shots that killed Reeva Steenkamp, but Chase Your Shadow is a thorough, honest, and compelling account of the life of a man Carlin found to be full of powerful and contradictory impulses.
This segment aired on December 13, 2014.