News of Pistorius case leaves many in disbelief

Gold medalist South Africa's Oscar Pistorius poses with his medal after winning the men's 400 meters T44 category final during the 2012 Paralympics in London Sept. 8, 2012. AP Photo

NEW YORK Classy, gracious, humble.

That was Oscar Pistorius. Before Thursday, Ato Boldon said, Pistorius' name would have been the last to come to mind if someone told him a track athlete was charged with murder.

"Not the second-to-last, not the third-to-last," the retired sprinter said. "The very last."

Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist and NBC analyst, spent Thursday morning exchanging shocked text messages and social media posts with his cohorts in the track community. They knew the double-amputee from South Africa as a transcendent figure who reminded fans of sports' greatest virtues.

Then came the news, just six months after Pistorius competed at the Olympics on his carbon-fiber blades, that he was arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend.

"He exudes class. He's gracious. He's humble," said Boldon, who felt he knew Pistorius well.

At what was supposed to be a celebration of elite track athletes, several American stars found themselves answering questions about Pistorius at a news conference in Manhattan promoting Saturday's Millrose Games.

Nick Symmonds, who finished fifth in the 800 meters in London, is friendly with Pistorius. He learned the news when he woke up at 6 a.m. 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."

In a sport that struggles to stay relevant in the U.S. for the four years between Olympics, Pistorius drew in fans who may never have even watched a race. On this day, track was all over the news for the most horrible of reasons.

Symmonds didn't want to sound callous in mentioning the sport's past doping scandals in a conversation about a murder investigation. But he acknowledged a strange sense of relief that at least this negative news didn't involve positive drug tests.

Said Boldon: "It really bothers me that it seems our biggest headlines as a sport are always, always, always negative headlines."

"There are housewives and kids that couldn't name another track and field athlete — and some of them who probably couldn't name another athlete, certainly in South Africa — who know the name Oscar Pistorius and know his story and feel like they were along on that amazing journey with him last summer," Boldon added.

Bernard Lagat, owner of six outdoor world championship medals, is often called an ambassador for the sport with his outgoing personality. He doesn't know Pistorius well, but feels the ache of a dark day for track.

He wants fans' reactions to be: "Did you see that? Did you see that world record? Did you see that amazing marathon?" When the attention has nothing to do with such feats, Lagat said, "that's the saddest thing."

The sadness was felt all the way to the small Italian town of Gemona. It was on a new track in the northeastern corner of the country that Pistorius trained last year for his Olympic debut.

"It's come as a huge shock to everyone who knew him," Mayor Paolo Urbani told The Associated Press.

"He's a delightful person, not only as a sportsman but also how he is as a human being," Urbani added.

Pistorius fought for years to be able to compete against able-bodied athletes after many said his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He finally won his case in 2008.

He made South Africa's team for the 2012 London Olympics, reaching the semifinals in the 400 meters and then running on the 4x400 relay squad in the final.

The International Olympic Committee, International Paralympic Committee and South African Olympic committee said they were not yet in position to comment, other than to offer condolences to the families.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones because of a congenital defect and had his legs amputated at 11 months. But he still played sports, including rugby. He dominated at the Paralympics before becoming the first double amputee to compete on the track at the Olympics.

Former Italian pole vaulter Andrea Giannini coached Pistorius from 2009-11.

"I'm hoping it was just a tragic accident," he told the AP. "He's a marvelous person, a really sweet and calm guy. It seemed like this was a calm time for him. He seemed really happy and well-balanced."

Boldon had spent enough time with Pistorius that he felt he could confidently say the "Blade Runner" hardly seemed capable of murder.

"There's nothing in his past, at all — at least that we knew, the public and the track and field fraternity — that gave any indication that anything like this was remotely possible," Boldon said.

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