“He won gold in the Paralympics in 2004. It wasn’t enough. He was 18 years of age, and determined to make his mark in the Olympics – the real competition, against men with real legs.” Gertruida is in her lecture-mode, her tone of voice grave, knowledgeable and informative. The patrons at the bar know this is not the time to interrupt or ask questions. “One has to remember he’s a born competitor. He only started running at the age of 16, because he tried to rehabilitate a knee he injured while playing rugby. Imagine that? Playing rugby with no legs. It makes you think.”
“Now remember: his legs were amputated at 11 months of age. His parents divorced when he was six. To compete with normal kids was a natural instinct and he showed athletic promise early. He boxed, wrestled and played cricket. One can assume his disability served to encourage him to prove himself.
“Now, psychologists will tell you this is more common than you’d like to think. Many disabled people find a way to the top by sheer grit and determination. Part of the picture is overcoming insecurity. You have to accept who and what you are, and then find ways to compensate for the specific handicap you have. Combine a genetic disorder, an unhappy childhood and obvious physical deformity, and there are a thousand reasons why somebody might just give up and allow life to sweep them along. But not this chap. He used his heartaches to be the fuel in the furnace to build up steam. He was going places – despite what Life dished out to him.
“To do that, he learnt to trust his own judgement. What other people thought or said, didn’t matter. Initially he was viewed as a curiosity on the track, but soon his determination started paying off. The small-town nobody became a part of Olympic history. Reporters loved his story. Disabled people right across the world were encouraged to rise above adversity by his efforts. He became a hero…
“But deep down, the scars of the past remained, like they always do in all of us. The struggle for so-called normality. The broken home. The loss of his parents. Maybe that was the source of a gnawing insecurity – or maybe his achievements compensated for them. In the end we get to the 12th of February. He found the love of his life. Oh, I’m sure he knew his athletic ability won’t last. No athlete goes on forever. But love…now there’s something to accompany you on the journey through life. This was something he couldn’t bear losing. This was something he’d want to protect with his life.”
Servaas holds up a hand. “No, Gertruida, you can’t be sure of all that. You’re guessing.”
“You’re right, Servaas. I am guessing. But in contrast to public opinion, I’m trying to paint a different picture.”
“You’re still assuming things you have no right to.” Servaas can be extremely obstinate.
“Okay.” Gertruida sighs. “Let’s assume then. Let’s assume we have to do with a fragile personality that’s used to losing the most important people in his life. He has achieved the impossible on the athletic track. Lets assume he’s looking ahead at the future, and will lay down his life to protect the love he’s discovered. And lets assume he picked up the gun, just like he said, to protect the woman in his bed.
“Lets assume he fires off the shots, and turns back to talk to her. Let’s assume the horror of the realisation of what he’d done. And let’s assume it is the one single moment that’ll haunt him for ever more.”
“Too many holes in that argument, Gertruida. Why didn’t he call the police or security people. Why didn’t he wake her up first? Why didn’t he know she’s not in bed?” Servaas shakes his head in disgust. “The pieces in your puzzle doesn’t fit.”
“Sure, Servaas. We have the luxury of thinking and analysing and being terribly clever. People around the world have mulled over this for endless hours.
“But he didn’t have the time. He acted. He got out of the starting blocks so fast, he completely forgot to check the basics. And he made the most disastrous mistake of all. Why? I’ll tell you why. I’m assuming it was a subconscious, automatic action to protect his love. He panicked. His thought processes stalled. He became the caveman, protecting his possessions. He stormed the lion with a club and wrecked his life.
“And once again, he lost what he desperately wanted to preserve. Broken home, dead mother, murdered love. And that’s why you saw the face in the court. He’s devastated – only this time, he was responsible for the loss.”
“You’re a good Christian, Getruida. You look at the bright side, searching for a nice answer to a terrible tragedy. I respect that, but I’ll wait for the court case.” Servaas isn’t convinced, but some of the things Gertruida said, gnaws at his conscience. “You can’t possibly say he wasn’t responsible for her death, though.”
“Sadly, no. He’ll have to face the wrath of the law for that. You can’t kill somebody and then argue innocence. All I’m trying to do, is to understand, that’s all.
“What I don’t understand, is the public outcry. If this was just another horrible mistake or some family tragedy, CNN and BBC and Sky wouldn’t have bothered. But because of the man he is, and because of the woman she was, it has become world news.
“Society loves drama. They dress it up and dissect it. They love to see a hero fall. Sometimes I’m convinced about a universal disability – we just don’t do compassion any more. Find him guilty, if you want. Send him to jail, if you like. If it was premeditated – let him feel the force of law. But if this is a case of an insecure man who panicked and made a disastrous decision…well, then I feel for him. He is guilty of shooting the girl. No question. But what was in his heart when he pulled the trigger? And that, my friends, is what the judge must rest his sentence on.”
“I don’t know, Gertruida…”
“Look, Servaas, you’ve made up your mind. It’s your right to do so. I’m just saying Oscar isn’t the only disabled person in the accused dock right now. We – all of us – are suffering from a variety disabilities right now. We don’t know enough. We can’t see the suffering of the two families. We don’t want to hear any other explanations. And we avoid feeling the pain of those directly involved in the tragedy.
“They say you must walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes to understand him. Society, Servaas, has never balanced on those blades. That’s their disability. They didn’t hear the roar of the crowd in London when he ran that race. They can’t hear the scream of pain when he stands, head bowed, in front of the cameramen. And society – with nothing better to do – will rather condemn than be compassionate. That’s our disability, Servaas, and there’s no prosthesis for that.”