Welcome to Oscar Town
Adriaan Basson hopped on a plane to the foothills of the snow-capped Alps to find Oscar’s ‘home away from home’
Oscar Pistorius doesn’t own a house in Italy – he owns a town.
The 11 175 residents of the northern Italian town of Gemona del Friuli refuse to believe he killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in cold blood.
He is their Oscar, forever.
He’s the Oscar who stopped an interview with foreign journalists last year to accept a freshly picked strawberry from his biggest fan, two-year-old Gioia Lessanutti.
He’s the Oscar who, to relieve stress, learnt to make gnocchi with hotel owner Ottone Goi in his kitchen a few months ago.
He’s the hero who showed disabled resident Flavio Frigé that “you can reach anything you want, even if you have big disadvantages”.
Gemona is a picturesque town at the foot of the snow-capped Alps, near the Austrian and Slovenian borders.
A little more than an hour’s drive from the nearest international airport in Venice, it’s the perfect place for an international celebrity to disappear to.
The air is crisp and the locals are friendly.
It’s no surprise, then, that Pistorius adopted Gemona as his “home away from home” in 2011.
His first visit was in July 2010, after having been invited by a summer school for foreign students to receive an award.
The town has been home to the programme, hosted by the Catholic University of Milan and Udine University, since 1989.
Mayor Paolo Urbani saw an opportunity to launch his ambitious sports town plan and asked the programme to bring out a big star.
Pistorius’ name was given.
Urbani says: “Oscar was the perfect ambassador for our project. Not only for the sport, but also because he is an inspiration for disabled people. We had an earthquake in 1976 and our people would also like to rise again.
“For us, having Oscar here was a perfect example of someone who doesn’t just sit and wait, but goes on to the track and does his job. He sacrificed a lot and reached what he wanted.
“We are rebuilding the town and it was important for us to have him as an ambassador.”
Gemona was the epicentre of an earthquake that hit the Friuli region in 1976.
It measured 6.4 on the Richter scale and killed 989 people. The town has still not recovered: cracked buildings are visible and the castle is still being repaired.
Pistorius was Gemona’s symbol of hope; someone who excelled in spite of adversity.
One of Urbani’s key election promises was to upgrade the town’s sports facilities and market it as a prime destination for international athletes during the European summer.
When he met Pistorius, he joked that maybe one day they could convince him to “become the ambassador” for their project.
An agreement was formalised in 2011.
The town agreed to pay Oscar €15 000 (about R177 000) a year to train there for four months.
They would also cover his accommodation and other expenses.
Urbani says: “It was good advertising for our town. People came here to see him. He had lots of meetings with disabled people and he went to schools to speak to students.
“Oscar took our name and town outside (of Italy). When he went to international meetings, he would say, ‘Gemona is a good place to train’. At the Olympics, he had a banner of Gemona.”
Opposition politician Matteo Benvenuti agrees Pistorius was important to the town’s sports project but, according to him, the money spent on the project, which he estimates to be about R33 million, could have been put to better use elsewhere.
He says: “We could have renovated the roads. We have crazy economic problems in Italy. We could have spent it on people in trouble.”
When Pistorius arrived in May 2011 for his first four-month training camp, he booked into the popular Hotel Willy, owned by the Goi family for 55 years.
The municipality asked for a special room for disabled people but, according to co-manager Agnese Goi, when Oscar arrived “he said no, he wants a simple, normal room”.
A large banner bearing Pistorius’ photograph and the 2012 London Olympics logo adorns the entrance to the beer garden.
The hotel foyer features a poster-sized picture of him, signed with the words: “To everyone at Hotel Willy, thank you for all the support! Home away from home! Oscar Pistorius.”
The Gois don’t plan to take anything down.
Agnese says: “He feels like our brother. These feelings cannot change. It (Steenkamp’s shooting) was a big mistake.” Her sister Luisella agrees, saying: “Oscar stays Oscar in our minds. I don’t believe it.
We don’t think it is the same person we know.”
According to Agnese, he was “friendly with people in the restaurant. Very polite. I never heard the word ‘no’ from his mouth. He was an introvert. He didn’t disturb you, (and) he didn’t want to be disturbed”.
Luisella says: “Oscar didn’t want special arrangements. He said ‘yes, yes’ with a wonderful smile.”
When they spoke it was about “training, cars and food”, Luisella says.
“He showed me cars on his computer that he wanted to choose from. He was not sure which one to choose.”
During the ninth birthday party of Luisella’s daughter, Rosa, “Oscar came down with a present; he gave her a book”.
Luisella’s father, Ottone, showed him how to make gnocchi.
But his menu seldom varied. He had egg yolks and a little cereal for breakfast.
For lunch it was vegetable soup, chicken breast and salad; and more vegetable soup, fish and vegetables for dinner.
Closest to Pistorius in Gemona was his translator, Anna Pittini. She travelled with him and drove him around.
Oscar’s only Italian was: “Ciao, come stai?” (“Hello, how are you?”)
Pittini works for Pistorius’ agent, Peet van Zyl, who also manages other South African athletes who train there.
When in town, Pistorius had Hotel Willy’s largest room.
This was “for all (his) extra luggage”, according to Luisella, who further says: “He asked for a normal room but he travelled with so many bags.”
The room comprises a double bed, a single bed and a small painting of the Virgin Mary.
There is a writing desk, a modest bathroom with a shower, and a view of the Alps. The athletics track is a 10-minute walk away.
February 14 was a frenetic morning at Hotel Willy.
Luisella says: “We heard at about 8am. We opened the internet and the TV to check if someone had made a mistake with the name.”
They politely refuse when offered further details of the case.
It seems impolite to mention “blood splatters”, “ballistic tests” and “cellphone records” in Oscar’s town.
Luisella says: “We are not interested in that. No, not our Oscar. Oscar for us is Oscar. Even if the court finds him guilty, we will wait 20 years. The door is open.”
Frigé “feels bad” that something like this could happen to his “brother”.
He says: “I don’t see Oscar as a big athlete, but as a friend. I am waiting for him. I had a dream to challenge Oscar to a hike in the mountains.”
Tears well in his eyes when asked if he has a message for Oscar.
“I miss you. I will send him a hug. Nothing can change about him. I hope that he will find a way to go on. I would love to hug him again,” he says.
Urbani has two pictures of himself and Pistorius on desk clocks in his office.
There is a mural featuring Pistorius in the town centre.
When asked if he’ll take them down, Urbani says: “I have two kinds of feelings; the one is personal and the (other) is that of a mayor, who has to make decisions. We have to wait until the law has spoken in South Africa.”