JOHANNESBURG (AP) — His head shrouded by a sports hoodie, the young man walked unnoticed through a bustling crowd outside the gates of the Olympic village in London last year. When he got close, I saw a familiar face smiling at me.
It was Oscar Pistorius. "Gerald!" he called and then raised both hands for a double high-five greeting followed by a hug.
On Feb. 14, I saw Pistorius in a hood again, and this time he stared straight at the ground, hands thrust into the pockets of a gray sports jacket. He was flanked by officers as he left a police station. Hours earlier, he'd been charged with killing his girlfriend.
It is hard to reconcile the easygoing, charismatic man I interviewed on several occasions with the man accused of premeditated murder in the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp in his South African home. Prosecutors painted him as a man prone to anger and violence, though he had no prior criminal record. The Olympian says he shot Steenkamp by mistake, thinking she was a nighttime intruder, while prosecutors allege he intentionally shot her after the couple argued.
Who is Oscar Pistorius? I thought I had some idea, and in a sense, so did the millions around the world who cheered the double-amputee athlete as a symbol of determination over adversity.
Now he is as much of a mystery as whatever happened in his home in the early hours of Valentine's Day.
My meeting with Pistorius in London was one of several in the three years I have been covering his remarkable story for The Associated Press, from South Africa to Italy to London — and last week to Courtroom C on the first floor of the red-bricked and gray-walled Pretoria Magistrate's Court in the South African capital.
On reflection, Pistorius' narrative is partly an exploration of how hard it is to truly know someone who lives so much in the public eye. Journalists witnessed or heard reports of occasional flashes of anger — with hindsight, do they loom as potentially more meaningful? At the time the outbursts passed largely unnoticed.
What I do know is that the public Pistorius seemed to have a soft spot.
Weeks before his debut at the Olympics, he stopped an interview with me to talk to a little girl who walked up to give him a strawberry from the gardens of the rural hotel at his training base in Gemona, in northern Italy.
"Oscar, Oscar," the little girl said, holding out the berry. Behind her, a woman called the child away to stop her from bothering Pistorius.
"Ciao, baba. Grazie," Pistorius replied with a smile, unfazed by the interruption, showing off his Italian and pretending to eat the strawberry.
"She brings me something to eat every night," he told me delightedly, pointing up to the windows of his hotel room.
Now the world knows Pistorius owns a 9 mm Parabellum pistol, licensed for self-defense, and that he applied for licenses to own six more guns — listed for his private collection — weeks before the shooting death of Steenkamp.
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