Pistorius case shows the folly of hero worship
I:Treating sports stars as role models is not a good idea
Impossible as it already is to believe what further twist the case of Oscar Pistorius might take, what is certain is that the South African Paralympics star has had one hell of a fall from sporting grace. Not even the most daring screenwriter could have created such a desperately sudden and tragic tale.
Even without the sporting backdrop, this is a shocking story – but surely made worse by the fact this was a man who had built up a level of trust, and respect, that transcended even the sporting realm.
Pistorius was not just another sporting hero: he was more superhero, displaying extraordinary powers of athleticism and dedication to overcome a double lower-leg amputation in his infancy and become one of the most celebrated athletes on the planet.
Not content just to be a Paralympics success, he took on, and frequently beat, some of the best able-bodied athletes also.
I’ll never forget the buzz he created in the London Olympic Stadium last summer when racing in the 400m. He missed out on the final and yet Kirani James, the Grenadian sprinter who went on to claim the gold medal, was so enamoured by the very presence of Pistorius that he chased him down to exchange race numbers after their semi-final.
Now, whether intentional or accidental, the shooting dead of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the predawn hours of St Valentine’s Day has brought his sporting career to a screeching and tearful halt, aged just 26.
Sadder still is that his tale is becoming increasingly familiar, coming on the back of the drug-fuelled lie that was Lance Armstrong, the scandalous womanising of Tiger Woods, and more general cracks in the legitimacy of elite sport, from match-fixing to systematic doping.
These are just the headline acts, because no sport is immune; it’s not just the stars either. This time last year our Olympic marathon runner Martin Fagan, unable to maintain the expectations of sport, found himself joining the long line of drug cheats in athletics – the sport with perhaps the most considerable wall of shame, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones.
But if this shooting is somehow explained by the heroic status he had achieved, and cultivated at least in part by the very sporting world that he inhabited, including our own media adulation, then he has dented again the notion of there ever being a true sporting hero.
One way of dealing with all this was suggested recently by our own Paralympics star Mark Rohan, who won two handcycling gold medals in London. When asked about Armstrong’s downfall, a cyclist he openly admitted had once inspired him, he replied: “The thing is, I would never put anyone on a pedestal and I don’t think anyone should. Not too much, anyway.”