STELLENBOSCH, South Africa - For any track athlete, time counts more than anything else. The minutes, the seconds and the fractions of seconds. For Oscar Pistorius now, it's the days, weeks, months and — maybe — the years that pass.
The South African national championships came and went this weekend. No click, click, click of carbon-fiber blades. No orange-tinted lenses on sponsored sunglasses. No double-amputee running freely alongside able-bodied athletes. No Oscar Pistorius.
Exactly a year ago, this meet sent Pistorius on his way to the London Olympics, an important step on his celebrated path to the biggest sports event of all and his great achievement.
This year's South African track season began on a sunbathed university track in the historic old wine-producing town of Stellenbosch in southwest South Africa as the 2013 international circuit may well end — without Pistorius.
But even though the last 12 months have seen him reach unprecedented highs for a disabled athlete, should that hold any significance now in the context of the terrible tragedy that unfolded two months ago at Pistorius' home and sent the South African — in a swirling frenzy of front-page headlines worldwide — from Olympic inspiration to man accused of murder?
Where does Pistorius the athlete go from here? Where does he end up? And does he matter anymore?
To talk about Pistorius' track career so soon after the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp can be seen as insensitive. Where is its importance or relevance in the larger story? More specifically, why should he be able to run again and earn money after he shot and killed his girlfriend? The lives of Steenkamp's family will never be able to return completely to normal.
It's a difficult question.
A South African high court judge ruled swiftly and decisively that Pistorius could continue his running career, invoking the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty. The IAAF, the body that governs the sport, said a similar thing when it announced that Pistorius would be able to run at this year's world championships if — like any other athlete — he qualified.
The world hasn't found it anywhere near as easy as Judge Bert Bam or the IAAF to make a decision on Pistorius the runner.
The image of Pistorius running on track on his blades once inspired many. Now it repulses some, maybe even those who used to cheer for him. At the very least it causes strong conjecture.
A grainy photograph taken by a South African high school student last month is the only public image we have of Pistorius on the track since the Feb. 14 shooting death of Steenkamp. He's alone in the photo, walking on his blades at his regular practice facility at the University of Pretoria, hands on his hips as if he's catching his breath after a tough workout. His image in the distance is trapped between the bars of a metal fence in the foreground. The amateur photo, taken by a teenager on a cellphone, encapsulates Pistorius the athlete and Pistorius the alleged killer in a moment.
When and if Pistorius does return to competitive running, there's a second time element to play out.
Facing a likely lengthy murder trial, there is a chance that Pistorius the athlete might be back on track and under the closest and sternest of scrutiny while on trial for the premeditated murder of his girlfriend. In terms of any track comeback during that time, he'll be far, far more isolated than he was when he first wanted to run against able-bodied athletes and fought through an international ban and the doubts of many fellow competitors.
There will — and some say there should — be little sympathy.
But this might be the last remaining thing to hold on to for the disabled boy who became an Olympian, an inspiration and then a man facing life in prison for murder: He always ran for himself, he said. He didn't aim to be an icon for others, he said. Running, for him, is personal.
To understand Oscar Pistorius fully, you might always have to take into account his running, and the role it played — and still may play — for him. He might need it, not because it's what made him famous and known to millions, and quite wealthy at the age of 26, but because it's what made him just able to stand alongside others in the first place. It made him accepted and a triumph in his own thinking before it made him exceptional and a triumph to others.
His agent, Peet van Zyl, went some way toward explaining the meaning when talking about a possible track return recently. Pistorius' running future now depends on him and only him, Van Zyl and Pistorius' family have said. But "Oscar puts his blades on like we put our shoes on," Van Zyl said.
The message Pistorius has often conveyed when talking about running might be significant in the weeks, months and possibly years that come.
"I struggle when people ask, 'What are you trying to prove? What message are you trying to give?'" Pistorius said in an interview once with The Associated Press. "It's not about sending a message. I'm not trying to prove a point, I'm just trying to prove to myself that I can be the best that I want to be."
Pistorius' success on the track should now be irrelevant in the larger tragedy.
And maybe, rightly or wrongly, he will never run again at a major meet. Maybe there's meaning in the fact that a new young runner Van Zyl represents called Wayde van Niekerk won the 400-meter title at the South African nationals this weekend under the mountains in Stellenbosch. And maybe there's something in the fact that Pistorius' name was whispered here and there at Coetzenburg Stadium, but it wasn't as prevalent as you might think at the two-day meet of South Africa's top athletes.
If ever Pistorius was going to run for himself, and what it may mean to him and him alone, it's now.
Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP