Oscar Pistorius: From Jackie Robinson to O.J. Simpson

Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was charged Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs. Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times in the predawn hours in the home, in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria, police said. (Andy Wong/AP File)

He had a chance to be Jackie Robinson. Now Oscar Pistorius is going to wind up being O.J. Simpson.

This man, capable of lifting the hearts of millions, is charged with the most heinous and cowardly of crimes, murdering his girlfriend with a gun on Valentine's Day. It will be up to a judge in South Africa to determine whether Pistorius is guilty of killing with premeditation.

It is a terrible story, one to buckle the knees of anyone who was moved or inspired by Pistorius' 400-meter dash to posterity in the London Olympics. The sights and sounds were indelible and incredible - the roar of thousands of people carrying Pistorius as surely as the prosthetic legs churning beneath him.

An admission: I fell hard - for the athlete, for the story, for the moment, for what it all meant.

That's unusual. I am not someone who looks to athletes for anything loftier than entertainment. After nearly three decades of covering sports, I'm at best a realist and at worst a cynic about these people.

And no wonder: Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Lenny Dykstra, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods. It isn't a question of whether a great athlete will let fans down, but how. So it is fine to respect their accomplishments and marvel at their skills. But that is where it stops.

There are surely decent people out there competing in high-level athletics. There are no doubt some with admirable qualities and high character. But invest your faith, give your heart at your own risk.

You can watch Usain Bolt shatter world records in the 100 and 200 meters. You can be dazzled by his skills. But you hold something back. Too many track and field records were broken by steroid users to buy in completely.

Michael Phelps was the greatest swimmer of all time. He made a case for himself as the greatest Olympian of all time. He seems like an OK guy. It's not as if smoking a little pot disqualifies him from being respected for his accomplishments. But Phelps has never come across as an inspirational figure outside the arena.

Pistorius did.

He had qualified for the Olympics by running a competitive time in the 400 meters. But he also had to overcome efforts by track's international governing body to keep him out. On the day he ran his first heat in London, I got to the stadium early. This had a chance to be one of those moments that only the Olympics can provide.

Pistorius walked out onto the track in a sweat suit. He looked like everyone else, which was the entire point. After warming up a bit, he sat on the ground and took the sweat suit off.

There were his famous blades. He got up and started jogging around, getting loose. The immediate impression was of a special effect in a movie, a well-known actor given metal legs through computer animation. Pistorius moved so easily, it didn't seem possible that his legs weren't somehow there, hidden away.

Then he ran. After the years of court fights and training, he advanced all the way to the semifinal heat. He didn't just win a lawsuit, he won the right to call himself an Olympian, and he lived up to the label. And then some.

Afterward, in the mixed zone where athletes talk to reporters under the stadium, Pistorius was even more impressive. He was truly humbled and awed by the experience, by the crowd reaction. He was elegant and gracious and, yes, inspiring.

"I've been blessed by the Lord," said this man, born without fibulas in his legs. "I have cramps from smiling so much."

I had tears in my eyes watching him run, tears listening to him speak, tears blurring the laptop screen as I tried to capture the day in a column.

That doesn't happen at the average Eagles or Phillies game. There was just something about Pistorius. He was the first athlete in a long time that truly transcended his sport and seemed worthy of deeper admiration. He will also be the last in a much longer time.

The only tears for Pistorius now are tears of rage.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.