Your Heroes Aren’t What They Seem, When You’ve Been Where We’ve Been: Oscar Pistorius and the decline of the sporting hero

Source: The Independent
Source: The Independent

The shocking and tragic news of the shooting dead of Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Thursday morning, for which her boyfriend the Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been accused of pre-meditated murder is news that leaves both the Steenkamp and Pistorius families in a world of utter despair and confusion – the effects of such a tragic event, whatever the eventual outcome of any criminal proceedings against Pistorius, will be permanent upon all of those involved.

On a less important note, the tragic case of this murder robs the sporting world of another hero. I’ve been reading James Leighton’s biography of Duncan Edwards over the past few days and as Leighton acknowledges, although many in Edwards’ era are remembered fondly, ultimately their lives weren’t scrutinised to the extent that sports stars, in football but also generally, the way they are now. Leighton also acknowledges that had the same invasion culture existed in Edwards’ era then the press would’ve had a field day not unlike the circus that currently surrounds major footballlers and other sports stars. Their behaviour seems to the rest of us unusual, or even outlandish. They frequently do not make for good role models.

At the heart of this must be an acknowledgement that at the back of it all, sports stars are intensely driven people. They are more or less, abnormal – physically, yes through training but psychologically also too. In that sense they are hardly ideal role models. The intensity with which they develop one aspect of their lives leaves them less rounded than we might imagine. The mores of their world and  the mores of those who might idolise them is now so utterly apart that to take inspiration from a top-class athlete should probably only go so far – no further really than what you can learn from them about their sport. Pistorius is a fine example of this, as have been in recent times Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, to say nothing of the exploits of various footballers up to and including over the years George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Diego Maradona, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs or to take another example from elsewhere the bizarre case of Manti Te’o. Extraordinary athletes, they are like any of us, of uncertain moral fibre.

The tragedy of Pistorius, like Armstrong is the story of overcoming – in Armstrong’s case it was cancer; in Pistorius’ his disability. It was, and remains an impossibility not to admire the man who became known as ‘Blade Runner’ – his story seemed to offer up, more than most, the transcendental power of sport that we hope it can deliver at its best.

Writing recently on this very topic, Richard Crepeau noted

 We want our sports stars to be heroes of character and quality. We want it so much that when a sports figure achieves greatness on the field of play, we almost immediately assume he or she must have the heroic qualities of a great human being. This tendency has led to disillusionment over and over again...The fallen sports stars litter the pages of sport history and their number will continue to grow as long as Americans want sports heroes and not just sports stars, and continue to mistake one for the other.

In the end, though, heroes invariably disappoint by showing themselves to be human.

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