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Olympic Sprinter Oscar Pistorius Charged with Murder in Girlfriend’s Death

February 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
South Africans are in shock after their native son and historic sprinter Oscar Pistorius was charged with the murder of his girlfriend. Pistorius competed in the London 2012 Olympics as the first double-amputee track athlete. Ray Suarez talks with Michael Sokolove who profiled Pistorius in 2012 for the New York Times Magazine.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined by Michael Sokolove, a writer who spent time with the runner in South Africa for a 2012 feature for The New York Times magazine.

And, Michael, unlike most people on the planet, you have actually spent a lot of time with Oscar Pistorius. When you got the news this morning, what did you think?

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE, The New York Times: Well, first of all, I was shocked, and I was sad, because like most people who have run across Oscar, who have met Oscar, I like Oscar very much.

Like millions of people, I admire Oscar for what he’s done. So this is foremost a terrible tragedy for the young woman who has died. It’s a tragedy for Oscar, and it’s a tragedy for millions of people who look up to him.

RAY SUAREZ: In your story, you called him blessed with an uncommon temperament and elsewhere called him hell-bent. What’s he like?

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: He is an adrenaline junkie. He’s a guy who drives his cars at 150 miles per hour. And these are not normal cars you can buy in a dealership. These are really race cars.

He drives a speedboat. He injured himself on a speedboat. He keeps exotic pets that most people would find dangerous. So, he is a man who is addicted and loves speed. And if I had any worry for him, it was that he was going to hurt himself.

There was really nothing in his manner, nothing that I could ascertain in my time with him that made him — think that he was going to hurt someone else.

RAY SUAREZ: But, notably, you did write some about his affection for guns and the fact that he was handy with them.

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: Yes, for sure.

Oscar liked his guns. Oscar felt under threat. And South Africa is a place that apartheid is over, but there’s a terrible chasm between rich and poor, income inequality. And people with money, people with houses tend to live behind walls, behind barbed wire, behind gates with guns.

And this is not a pretty thing. It is a somewhat understandable thing. But I think that Oscar’s paranoia, if that’s what it was, wasn’t uncommon to his class in South Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: So, apart from the celebrity of both Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, this is not all that unusual. A lot of people die by firearms in South Africa, don’t they?

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: I believe that they do, and I think that perhaps even more than our own violent society and our own gun-soaked society, South Africa society is on a hair-trigger.

And I think it’s fair to say — we don’t know, first of all, what happened in this incident. I don’t know what happened in this incident. It’s very tough to do police reporting from here and know what’s going on in South Africa. But I do think it’s fair to say that Oscar was on high alert. Oscar was on a hair-trigger. Oscar had a certain paranoia about who might be coming into his house.

If that is a part of what happened in this incident, I don’t know. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

RAY SUAREZ: I was trying to think of what an equivalent sort of experience in the United States might be. This is a person who’s huge in South Africa, Oscar Pistorius, and now he’s behind bars. I couldn’t even think of an American equivalent. Can you?

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: Well, yes, I can think of some, certainly O.J. Simpson, who, it’s hard to remember now, because O.J. is shorthand for something else, but I’m old enough to remember when O.J. was a revered athlete in — and then went on to commercials, and he ran through airports, and he was a great-looking guy, and he seemed like a great guy, and everyone loved O.J.

I think that there is some comparison, and that this is not something you ever saw coming from Oscar Pistorius. I certainly didn’t see it coming and I don’t think that many people in South Africa would have expected this from him. Again, I want to caution that I don’t know what happened. It seems clear that someone was — that this woman was shot in his house. It seems fairly clear that he did the shooting.

What else was going on, I have no idea at this point. And I don’t want to be someone who is defending Oscar, because I don’t know what happened. All I can say is, honestly, I didn’t see malice from Oscar. I didn’t see him as a violent person. I did see him as a man of action, coiled, and on a hair-trigger. And that has its own dangers.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Sokolove writes for The New York Times, profiled Oscar Pistorius for the magazine.

Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: You’re welcome.