As Oscar Pistorius offered his first defense against a murder charge, the head of the Paralympics was trying to reassure members on Tuesday that the movement has a strong future even without its star athlete.
International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Philip Craven said he has been in a state of “shock and disbelief” since Pistorius was arrested last Thursday for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Having been central to plans to maintain the momentum from the record-breaking Paralympics last year, Pistorius has now been forced to pull out of all future races.
The South African helped to generate unprecedented interest in disability sport by becoming the first double amputee sprinter to compete at the Olympics. Now, Craven is acting quickly to ensure the Paralympics’ progress is not damaged by the fallout from Pistorius’ high-profile case.
“We’ve got so many stars coming through that this will not be an issue,” Craven said. “Even since this tragedy happened, it’s still been ‘London, London, London’ and what happened there — a unique moment in times that still continues in the hearts and minds of people.”
In a letter to IPC members on Tuesday, Craven sought to shift attention from the “difficult and traumatic day” regarding Pistorius to remind how the London Paralympics succeeded in creating “a whole host of young world-class, medal-winning athletes.”
Craven pointed to British sprinter Jonnie Peacock, who deposed Pistorius as 100m champion at the Paralympics, and Alan Oliveira, who took the 200m title in front of an 80,000-strong crowd in the London Olympic Stadium.
“It’s upon their shoulders that the Paralympic movement will be moving forward and it’s still continuing to be the most exciting times after London,” Craven said in a telephone interview from the IPC winter sports championships in Spain.
Craven has experienced a “roller coaster of emotion” since being awoken early last Thursday with the news that Pistorius had shot his girlfriend dead. The athlete said on Tuesday at a bail hearing that the incident was an accident — rather than premeditated murder — after believing she was a robber.
“Shock and disbelief,” Craven said of his initial thoughts. “I could not believe what I was hearing ... because of this total difference between Oscar, the person I knew — I won’t say very well, but I had interacted with him on many occasions in press conferences, etc, and seen him compete — and the Oscar we were hearing about now in the media and with what happened.”
Craven said he had not witnessed any change in Pistorius’ mindset at the Paralympics even when the runner created a storm by suggesting rival Oliveira was gaining an unfair advantage by using lengthened blades.
“In the heat of competition — I remember when I was a wheelchair basketball player — the redness would come down particularly if I didn’t agree with certain refereeing decisions, and I’ve seen it in other athletes,” Craven said. “I think it’s something that happens all the time in athletic competitions. It [the blades’ row] didn’t bother me at all, and didn’t make me think there was anything different in London [with Pistorius] to what there had been before.”
Craven has not made contact with the 26-year-old Pistorius since the Valentine’s Day arrest that stunned the world.
However, the Paralympic president has expressed the organization’s condolences to the family of Steenkamp, the model and law graduate who was cremated at a memorial service in the south-coast port city of Port Elizabeth on Tuesday.
Craven wants IPC members to “respect” the justice system.
“This is a police case and we have to remain impartial at all times,” he said. “The South African law courts will decide Oscar’s fate over the coming months and only then will the full story of what actually happened emerge.”
The case has delayed planned announcements on TV rights sales for next year’s Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The IPC has yet to find a US network to show its competitions live, after NBC was criticized for airing only five-and-a-half hours of Paralympic highlights from London.
“Meetings have taken place with US television stations with a view to things being put right, definitely by Rio, if not by Sochi,” Craven said.