PRETORIA (Reuters) - South African ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee who became one of the biggest names in world athletics, broke down in tears on Friday after he was charged in court with shooting dead his girlfriend in his Pretoria home.
The 26-year-old Olympic and Paralympic superstar stood with head bowed in front of magistrate Desmond Nair to hear the charge that he had murdered model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp.
Pistorius then started sobbing, covering his face with his hands. “Take it easy,” Nair told him. “Come take a seat.”
The case has stunned a nation that revered ‘the fastest man on no legs’ as a hero who managed to compete at the highest levels of sport despite being born without a fibula in either leg.
Prosecutors told the Pretoria court the shooting of 30-year-old Steenkamp in the early hours of Thursday was pre-meditated.
Pistorius faces life in prison if found guilty.
He did not enter a plea but a statement issued by his family and London-based agent said the charge was disputed “in the strongest possible terms”.
“He (Pistorius) has made it very clear that he would like to send his deepest sympathies to the family of Reeva,” the statement said, in the first message attributed to him since his arrest.
Steenkamp was found shot dead in Pistorius’s plush home in the middle of a heavily guarded gated complex in the northern outskirts of the capital, police said.
The Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper said she was hit four times, in the head, chest, pelvis and hand.
“The security guards found Pistorius by Steenkamp’s body in the bathroom,” the paper said on its website, citing a neighbor. “The door had bullet holes right through it.”
Defense lawyer Kenny Oldwage said his client had an “extremely traumatized state of mind”. He did not request bail before proceedings were adjourned until February 19.
Early reports of the shooting suggested Pistorius may have mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder, but police said neighbors had heard noises before the shots and there had been previous “domestic” incidents at the house.
Pistorius said nothing during the 40-minute hearing.
His father, Henke, and brother, Carl, sat directly behind him in the packed court-room, occasionally leaning forward to give him a pat on the shoulder.
His mother died in 2002 when he was 15 years old - a tragedy that he said spurred him on in his quest to compete as an able-bodied athlete.
Along with Lance Armstrong’s recovery from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France - an achievement now brought low by his admission of doping - Pistorius’ tale of triumph over adversity was one of the most powerful in the history of sport.
South African newspapers plastered Steenkamp’s killing across their front pages, reflecting shock and dismay at the fall of a man who commanded rare respect on all sides of the racial divides that persist in Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” 19 years after the end of apartheid.
“Golden Boy Loses Shine” ran a front page headline in the Sowetan, beside a picture of Pistorius, head bowed in a grey hooded tracksuit being led away from a police station.
Callers to morning radio shows expressed grief at the death of Steenkamp, who had been due to give a talk at a Johannesburg school this week about violence against women.
There was also widespread disbelief at the fate of a sportsman regarded as a genuinely “good guy”.
“How is it possible for one so high to fall so low so quickly?” Talk Radio 702 host John Robbie said.
South Africa’s M-Net cable TV channel immediately pulled adverts featuring Pistorius off air but most of his sponsors, including sports apparel group Nike, said they would not make any decisions until the police investigation was completed.
Pistorius’ endorsements and sponsorships, which also include British telecoms firm BT, sunglasses maker Oakley and French designer Thierry Mugler, are thought to be worth as much as $2 million a year.
He reached the pinnacle of his fame in London 2012 when he became the first double amputee to run in the Olympics, reaching the 400-metres semi-finals.
In last year’s Paralympics he suffered his first loss over 200 meters in nine years. After the race he questioned the legitimacy of Brazilian winner Alan Oliveira’s prosthetic blades, but was quick to express regret for the comments.
Near the home, people who knew Pistorius paid tribute to a much-loved local hero.
“Some of us were in tears,” said Precious, who works at a petrol station where Pistorius used to fill up his McLaren supercar, signing autographs and picking up the tab for people in the convenience store.
“He was just so kind to everyone,” said Precious, who declined to give her family name.
Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens