The Unwarranted Mythology of Oscar Pistorius
When I read the four-line alert on my iPad Thursday morning about the charge of murder against Oscar Pistorius, the 26-year-old South African who had become an Olympic-caliber runner despite the loss of both legs, I had a visceral reaction:
Pistorius’s lower legs had been amputated as an infant because of malformation. But with the use of carbon-fiber prosthetic blades, he had overcome what seemed physically impossible to overcome. He competed in the 400-meter distance with the world’s elite. Given his handicap, his speed seemed incomprehensible, a hero, yes a permanent hero that nothing and no one could ever bring down.
So I was obviously shocked when I read that Pistorius had been arrested Thursday for killing his girlfriend, 30-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp, at his home in Pretoria with shots to the upper body and head. Hence the “holy shit.”
Until I came to my senses five seconds later and realized the whole notion of heroes in sports is absurd and always has been and we all have to stop the hyperventilated hyperventilation (see Aug. 27, 2012, Newsweek piece on Lance Armstrong by yours truly).
I have said this before and it is time to say it again: we must put an end to self-delusion and judge gifted athletes for what is embedded within them beyond their skills—the selfish entitlement that comes with nonsensical idolatry and seals them in an airtight bubble regardless of their feigned ability to act humble in postgame interviews. Why do we so routinely fall for the “I’m just doing what’s best for my team” line when one eye of the player is trained on the stands looking for the next dolled-up groupie to bed for the night.
They are narcissistic men. They have to be, anybody has to be, in pursuit of greatness. They are also men for whom the ends always justify the means, seek any edge to give them the millimeter that separates the successful from those toiling in obscurity. Just go to the beginning rounds of the U.S. Open in tennis. Watch the 88th best player in the world serve and volley with exquisiteness and then watch one of the top seeds and ask yourself what the difference is except that tiny slice. If it means the difference between anonymity and fame, financial struggle and millions, who would not grab for that sliver by any means possible?
Maybe if you were moral. Or upright. Or believe in rules. But athletes and coaches don’t believe in rules, but breaking them without detection. Bountygate with the New Orleans Saints. Cameragate with Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, fined for training a video camera on the opposing sidelines to pick up offensive and defensive signals. Relief pitchers in small parks, picking up signs from the opposing catcher because of clear sightlines, relaying them to batters with various hand movements. Steroids. Doping. Human growth hormone. Greenies. Now deer antler spray and magic underwear.
The problem is not with the athletes, very few of whom desire role-model status (New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter is the only one I am confident of). Want to hear baseball players bitch? Listen to their put-upon groans when they have to go out on the field to sign autographs during fan appreciation day.
The problem is our endless mythologizing of the athlete, this notion that they stand for something special beyond the field of play. They don’t, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to make them equal to the image we insist on having for them. It goes back to the Greeks and the idea of sport as some sort of Herculean sacrifice without personal enrichment. The worst and most pernicious propagandist was the early 20th-century sportswriter Grantland Rice, with his endlessly inflated descriptions, such as comparing the backfield of Notre Dame to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1924. Epic writing yes, impressive under deadline, but biblical bullshit.
When it comes to Pistorius, go back in the archives of The New York Times Magazine to January 18, 2012, and read the piece by Michael Sokolove, for my money the best long-form journalist on sports in the country.
Sokolove clearly liked Pistorius. He also showed a side of the man that Sokolove ultimately dubbed as an “adrenaline freak” (although an out-of-his-mind freakin’ danger freak would have been more accurate): a penchant for driving cars 155 miles per hour on roads with standing water; the crash of his boat that required 172 stitches; a keen interest in guns and shooting, keeping dangerous animals as pets.
Sokolove also went into detail on whether Pistorius’s blades gave him an unfair advantage over runners with intact bodies. There has been a radical difference of opinion, but the soundest scientific voice in the piece came from Peter Weyand, a professor of applied psychology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University. Weyand established that Pistorius’s blades were very light, 5.4 pounds, as compared to 12.6 pounds for the leg and foot of a normal runner. According to Weyand, that gave Pistorius the ability to reposition his blades 20 percent more rapidly than a normal competitor.
How much of a difference would that make?
Weyand said it gave Pistorius an enormous 11.9-second advantage in the 400 meters. That would give Pistorius a time of roughly 57 seconds in the 400 meters, nowhere near the world’s best and mediocre for even a high schooler. But Weyand has not wavered in the face of fierce criticism from other academics who have studied Pistorius. Nor does he have any axe to grind, describing Pistorius’s efforts as still remarkable.
Raising questions about the possibility of such an unfair competitive advantage just got in the way of the story. It also would have been seen as hideously politically incorrect. We wanted a myth so we created a myth: Pistorius not simply the Blade Runner, as he was nicknamed, but able to compete with the best of the best at the 2012 London Olympics. He arguably got more attention at the Olympics than any other athlete.
He did win his first heat with those lightning-fast blades. But he finished last in the semifinals, a space capsule crashing back to earth. But the hero label still stuck despite behavior that continued to be disturbing.
In the 2012 Paralympics T44 division, he finished second in the 200 meters to Brazil’s Alan Olviera; instead of grace in defeat, he said that Olviera’s blades were too long, something of an irony for a handicapped man accused of using unfair equipment to his competitive advantage. He kept a gun in his Pretoria home, not surprising given the level of violence in South Africa. But he also showed an inordinate interest in shooting and his prowess, going to the range at night when he could not sleep.
Initial reports were that Pistorius might have shot Steenkamp because he believed a burglar had infiltrated his house, which was something he feared. There were the requisite comments of disbelief, including from Sokolove on a New York Times blog yesterday. “I can’t imagine anything like that,” said Sokolove, perhaps because most people usually don’t confide the notion of blowing away their girlfriends, even to The New York Times.
After the initial reports, police did confirm that there had been previous incidents at the house involving allegations of domestic violence. All sorts of instant theories will be floated. Finding out what happened may take weeks or months or years or never, since there were no witnesses to the shooting.
But given what has been credibly written about him personally, Oscar Pistorius was transfixed by the dark side of the moon.
“I am a bullet in a chamber,” said Pistorius in a 2011 ad for Nike.
Sounds like he may have known himself all too well.
Watch the history of Oscar Pistorius, from double-amputee baby to Olympic sprinter to murder suspect.