Hands clasped to his face, his torment laid bare in a humid redbrick courtroom, Oscar Pistorius was back at the centre of the crowd’s gaze.
Six months ago he was watched by millions as he sprinted down the track of London’s Olympic Stadium. On Friday Pistorius stood in the dock a broken man, facing a charge of murdering his girlfriend.
The double-amputee athlete, nicknamed Blade Runner, was making his first court appearance since the multiple shooting at his home that left the 29-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp dead.
Pistorius denied murder “in the strongest terms”, his family and management made clear in a statement, offering their “deepest sympathy” to Steenkamp’s family.
Inside the packed courtroom in Pretoria all eyes turned as Pistorius, his hair short and neat, entered wearing a grey suit and blue tie. He quickly broke down, putting his fingers over his eyes, his trauma reflected in the faces of watching photographers.
“Take it easy,” the chief magistrate Desmond Nair told him. “Come take a seat.”
As proceedings continued, Pistorius repeatedly lost his composure. When the magistrate used the phase “premeditated murder” the athlete slumped forward as if trying to bend over double, his head bowed, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably.
He remained inconsolable and silent throughout, a lonely man in a crowded room.
Pistorius’s father, Henke, was in court, as was his brother Carl, sister Aimee and other supporters. At one point Henke leaned forward and placed a comforting hand on Pistorius’s back; at another, Carl put a hand on his shoulder, prompting Pistorius’s head to turn slightly.
Nair announced the case as “the state versus Mr Oscar Leonard Pistorius”, involving a charge of one count of murder. The prosecution indicated it would file the more serious charge of premeditated murder. Pistorius could face life in prison if found guilty.
Nair presided over the near hour-long hearing in a courtroom crammed with more than 100 people, including numerous local and international journalists. The magistrate ruled that no recordings of court proceedings would be allowed in the case.
The hearing was relatively informal, with attendees wearing T-shirts and jeans, and journalists frequently tweeting from phones. One man in a yellow football shirt held a crime docket marked “GBH” and “beer bottle”.
The magistrate delayed Pistorius’s bail hearing until Tuesday and ruled that the 26-year-old would be held at a Pretoria police station until then. It is more common for the accused to be detained in prison.
Steenkamp was found shot dead in Pistorius’s home in a heavily guarded, gated complex in the northern outskirts of Pretoria. South African media reports suggest Pistorius may have mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder, but police said neighbours had heard shouting and screaming before the shots and there had been previous “domestic” incidents at the house.
The Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper said Steenkamp was shot four times, in the head, chest, pelvis and hand. “The security guards found Pistorius by Steenkamp’s body in the bathroom,” the paper said, citing a neighbour. “The door had bullet holes right through it.” Police have not disclosed details and there has been no verification of the claim.
Pistorius’s family and management company issued a statement making clear that he intends to fight the charge. “Firstly, and most importantly, all our thoughts today must be with the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp,” the statement said.
“Oscar Pistorius has appeared in court here in Pretoria this morning formally charged with the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest terms.”
It added: “Oscar Pistorius has made history as an Olympic and Paralympic sportsman and has been an inspiration to others the world over. He has made it very clear that he would like to send his deepest sympathies to the family of Reeva.
“He would also like to express his thanks through us today for all the messages of support he has received – but as stated, our thoughts and prayers today should be for Reeva and her family, regardless of the circumstances of this terrible, terrible tragedy.”
The defence lawyer Kenny Oldwage said his client was in an “extremely traumatised state of mind”.
Stuart Higgins, a former editor the Sun and now a PR consultant, has flown out to South Africa to help co-ordinate the Pistorius family’s media strategy.
Earlier Pistorius was led by officers to a police van outside the Boschkop police station in eastern Pretoria, where he had been questioned on Thursday and had spent the night in custody.
A policeman was seen carrying a handgun in a plastic forensic bag outside the Boschkop station. It was believed to be the 9mm pistol used to shoot and kill Steenkamp.
When Pistorius arrived at court in the back of a police vehicle, he hid his face with a jacket and pressed an A4 notebook to the window.
The case has stunned a nation that revered “the fastest man on no legs” as an inspiration who managed to compete at the highest levels of sport despite being born without a fibula in either leg.
South Africa‘s M-Net cable TV channel pulled adverts featuring Pistorius off air but most of his sponsors, including Nike, said they would not make any decisions until the police investigation was completed.
Pistorius’s endorsements and sponsorships, which also include BT, Oakley and the French designer Thierry Mugler, are thought to be worth as much as $2m a year.
Acquaintances of Pistorius, including a former girlfriend, spoke out on social media. Trish Taylor, mother of Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend Samantha Taylor, wrote on Facebook: “I’m so glad Sammy is safe and out of the clutches of that man.”
Another ex-girlfriend, Jenna Edkins, defended Pistorius on Twitter. “All I am saying is let him speak, let his side be heard without jumping to conclusions,” Edkins wrote.
She offered “love and support” to the Pistorius family and added: “I have dated Oscar on and off for 5 YEARS, NOT ONCE has he EVER lifted a finger to me or made me fear for my life.”
Police said investigators had conducted an autopsy on Steenkamp’s body but the results would not be published. A memorial service will be held in her home city, Port Elizabeth, on Tuesday.
Producers of a pre-recorded reality TV show, Tropika Island of Treasure, in which she appears said that after “much deliberation” they had decided to go ahead with the broadcast on Saturday.