Opinion | Columnists

Sportsmen are no superhumans: Ask Pistorius

To leap from recollections of Pistorius sharing the London stage with sporting icons to an image of fatal gunshot wounds is indeed a shock

  • By Paul Hayward
  • Published: 20:00 February 15, 2013
  • Gulf News

Oscar Pistorius is the “Blade Runner” who united the disabled and able-bodied sport. He bestrode the Olympic and Paralympic Games of London 2012 like an advert for the human spirit. But his cartoon hero status was inadmissible when he appeared in court in Pretoria yesterday, charged with murdering his 30-year-old girlfriend. The death of Reeva Steenkamp from gunshot wounds at Pistorius’s home in a gated community in South Africa was a tragedy with only one true victim: The law graduate, entrepreneur, television presenter and model who died at the hands of perhaps the most famous runner after Usain Bolt — whether accidentally or by design.

Either way, one of the most romantic sporting tales of modern times has been engulfed by darkness. Pistorius was emblematic of London 2012. He was an inspiration who had defeated those who tried to stop him running on the main Olympic stage. He was the man who bounced across the gap between the two London carnivals. Now, the world convulses in shock and Pistorius enters the dock as South Africa’s justice system pieces together the grim events of Wednesday night and Thursday morning — Valentine’s Day morning. Memories of Pistorius in London remain vivid. Few nights went by in the media zones of the Olympic Stadium without his excited chatter moving along the line of cameras and voice recorders. Often he would tell his uplifting tale for an hour before finally padding away on his carbon fibre blades. We stage-door-johnnies would marvel at his appetite for publicity, his willingness to answer the same question endless times.

Some nights he would give 20 interviews. Whole races would go by and Pistorius would still be talking. The tone was always the same: Buoyant, affable, proud. Pistorius was his own PR department for the amazing story of how he broke down the barriers of Olympic sport. “I’m not disabled, I just don’t have legs,” he liked to say. This was a personal movie about one man’s refusal to be held back by a physical calamity. However, it was also a broadcast to the world: To amputees and people with other debilitating conditions. He was throwing open the doors of sport to all. He was a symbol, a moment in history, a one-man parade of the human will. He reached the semi-finals of the Olympic 400 metres before moving on to win silver in the T44 200 metres, gold in the 4x100 metres relay and gold in the T44 400 metres at the Paralympics, where he was a combination of poster boy and elder statesman. His voice box was always working, his smile never extinguished, except for the day he stirred up a controversy by accusing fellow Paralympian runners of adjusting the length of their blades to gain an edge.

Even then, he managed to present himself as the guardian of the sport, a fierce advocate of fair play. Born without a fibula in either leg, he lost both to amputations. A prodigy of Paralympic running, Pistorius won a major legal battle in 2008 when the governing body of athletics, the IAAF, allowed him to compete against able-bodied athletes. At London, he became the first amputee sprinter to compete at the Olympics. With the filmic grandeur of his story came a celebrity profile, not only in South Africa but across the world. A large PR industry grew up around him and he became a billboard regular. Advertisers loved him because he conveyed a message deeper than money or medals. Here was an athlete on the cutting edge of science, propelled not only by technology but his own courage. London 2012 was his chance to join Usain Bolt and Co in the worldwide consciousness and expended every ounce of spare effort to make his story heard.

With all this swirling in our heads, the news that Pistorius had been charged with the murder of Steenkamp at his home in the Silverlakes complex in the Boschkop area of Pretoria arrived with two possibilities: Accident or crime. Either way, it has wiped out the sporting narrative. To leap from recollections of Pistorius sharing the London stage with Bolt, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis to an image of fatal gunshot wounds was indeed a shock. Whatever the truth, this is another good reason to stop thinking that top sportsmen and women are superhumans and blessed. The jolts keep coming. In the last few days alone we have heard allegations of industrial-scale match-fixing in football and a “widespread” performance-enhancing drug problem in Australia.

In Madrid, a major doping trial is sucking in sports beyond cycling, itself reeling from the Lance Armstrong scandal. Paul Gascoigne, one of the most talented English footballers since 1966, has put his life at risk through alcohol. Strictly, there is no connection between these events and the terrible news about Steenkamp. However, they tell us not to think the stars of the sporting world lead better or simpler lives. Paralympic sport was desperate to find a way out of its minority status. Pistorius led it by the hand into the big stage. London 2012 was its great leap forward, drawing record TV audiences and establishing a new crop of heroes. Pistorius was the one the whole world knew. However, he will no longer be known as the Blade Runner: The man who led disabled sport into the bright lights. His global renown will be much darker now. He will always be the man on “cheetah blades” who picked up a gun and, whether by accident or deliberately, dispatched a woman to oblivion. In that sense, his part in London 2012 already reads less like a triumph over adversity than a cautionary tale.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2013

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