Out in the small Italian town of Gemona, as in many places around the world, the arrest of Oscar Pistorius on murder charges was hard to believe.
It was on a new track in the northeastern corner of Italy that the double-amputee from South Africa trained last year for his Olympic debut, running lap after lap on his Cheetah Flex-Foot blades in preparation for his trip to the world’s biggest sporting event.
On Thursday, shortly after Pistorius was charged in South Africa with the shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, the mayor of Gemona said it was tough to take.
“The news shocked not only me personally but also the whole of Gemona and the region. It’s come as a huge shock to everyone who knew him,” Mayor Paolo Urbani said.
“I have to say Oscar was an exceptional testimonial for our project, helping the city take forward its sporting plans. He’s a delightful person, not only as a sportsman but also how he is as a human being. The news is still very fragmentary and we’re waiting to hear more, to find out exactly what happened.”
Pistorius fought for years to be able to compete against able-bodied athletes after many said his carbon-fiber blades gave him an unfair advantage. He finally won his case in 2008, but failed to run the qualifying time for the Beijing Olympics.
He did, however, make South Africa’s team for last year’s London Olympics, reaching the semifinals in the 400 metres and then running for South Africa’s 4x400 relay team in the final.
Nick Symmonds, an American athlete who finished fifth in the 800 metres in London, is friendly with Pistorius. He learned the news when he woke up at 6am and turned on the TV.
“I was just shocked like everybody else,” he said. “We’re going to have to let the courts down in South Africa sort out the facts.”
Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist and an analyst on NBC television in the United States, said Pistorius’ name would have been the last to come to mind if someone told him a track athlete was charged with murder.
“He exudes class. He’s gracious. He’s humble,” said Boldon, who felt he knew Pistorius well.
The International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee each had little to say about the case.
“This is not the moment for the IOC to be commenting on this tragic incident. Our thoughts are with the families affected and we send them our deepest sympathies,” the IOC said in a statement.
The IPC said it was “police matter.”
“Therefore it would be inappropriate for the IPC to comment on this incident until the official police process has concluded,” the IPC said in a statement on its website. “The IPC would like to offer its deepest sympathy and condolences to all families involved in this case.”
The South African Olympic committee released a statement saying it had been “inundated” with requests for comment but were not in a position to give out any details of the shooting.
“SASCOC, like the rest of the public, knows no more than what is in the public domain,” the group said. “The organisation is in no position to comment on the incident other than to say our deepest sympathy and condolences have been expressed to the families of all concerned.”
Pistorius’ father, Henke, declined to comment, saying only “we all pray for guidance and strength for Oscar and the lady’s parents.”
Agent Peet van Zyl and coach Ampie Louw couldn’t be reached, while Pistorius’ cellphone went straight to voicemail.
Former 100-metre world record-holder Asafa Powell tweeted about Steenkamp’s death.
“Sad news about oscarpistorius & fatal shooting of his girlfriend he’s a true inspiration & amazing athlete. A real tragedy for all,” Powell wrote.
Pistorius became an inspiration to many by overcoming his disability to compete at the highest level. Born without fibula bones due to a congenital defect, he had his legs ampuated at 11 months. But he still played sports, including rugby.
“It’s incredible for anyone involved with Oscar, especially his family,” Former Italian pole vaulter Andrea Giannini, who coached Pistorius from 2009-11, said. “I knew Oscar well. I’m hoping it was just a tragic accident. He’s a marvellous person, a really sweet and calm guy. It seemed like this was a calm time for him. He seemed really happy and well-balanced.”