Oscar Pistorius Now Being Seen by Many South Africans as a Fallen Hero

South Africans initially rushed to blame their country’s soaring crime rate for the Paralympics and Olympics icon ‘accidentally’ shooting his girlfriend. But as the mistaken-identity narrative crumbles, they are having second thoughts.

02.15.13 11:03 AM ET

On Friday morning in Johannesburg, Oscar Pistorius, the 26-year-old South African Paralympics legend, will appear in court to answer murder charges. South Africa woke up Thursday to the unlikely Valentine’s Day news that Pistorius reportedly had shot and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, apparently in a case of mistaken burglar identity.

Social media were abuzz with claims that he had thought Steenkamp, 30, was an intruder, a would-be criminal—a possibility all too real in a country where violent crime, including armed robbery, is infamously high.

But as Thursday unfolded, the possibility of a more tragic narrative started to emerge. A police spokeswoman, Brig. Denise Beukes, informed the media that the victim had been shot four times and that there had been no sign of forced entry or burglary at Pistorius's residence, despite rumors and reports to that effect.

The police indicated that the state would oppose a request for bailand noted suggestively that there had previously been incidents of “a domestic nature” at the couple’s residence.

It was clear from the police briefing that a tragic tale about accidentally shooting the love of one’s life will give way to a murder trial in which one of the golden boys of international sports will be portrayed as a monster. This story will shatter the hearts of many South Africans, as well as fans and admirers across the world.

Pistorius is a South African icon. He has a disarming smile, exudes warmth, is very friendly and engaging with the public and media, and is enviably handsome. The fact that he is a double amputee is arguably not even the first thing one now cites in making sense of his popularity. He just is a sporting superstar without qualification.

Of course, a larger narrative about his life must include the historic impact this athlete has had on how we view athletes with disabilities. It is the story of an underdog who was determined to compete with able-bodied athletes, a battle he won, first when he had to prove his famous blades do not give him a competitive advantage and second when he qualified for and participated in the recent London Olympics.

Now he appears a fallen hero. The South African public is in shock and deeply divided. Initial discussions and debates online and on radio talk shows focused on crime in the country and the need for keeping guns to protect oneself. Racial tension, never far from the surface of public debate here, also reared its head. Some whites on online news sites suggested that the failure of a black government to competently deal with crime had led to this innocent hero accidentally killing his partner. One news website had to temporarily disable its comment section to stop the expression of toxic racism.

But as police presented a different narrative, sentiment started shifting, with fans forced to deal with a personal story challenging their convictions about a man assumed to be incapable of wrong, and a wider debate about crime and gun violence had to be put on ice.

Is he guilty? The next few days and months will provide us an answer. No doubt this will be one of the most gripping and unlikely murder trials of 2013.