Sports scandals: Going the distance

by Paul Thomas / 28 February, 2013
Treating sporting stars as role models can be problematic.
Oscar Pistorius - one of the most competitive animals on Earth
Oscar Pistorius: one of the most competitive animals on Earth. Photo/Getty Images.

Eat your heart out, show business: when it comes to riveting murder scandals, you’ve got nothing on sport.

Sure, the Los Angeles coroner is trying to breathe fresh life into Natalie Wood’s drowning, but that was 30 years ago and we still don’t know if there was foul play or if she just had too much to drink and fell overboard. Yes, quite a few rappers seem to live fast and die young, but then dying in a hail of bullets is to gangstas what being gored by bulls is to matadors: an occupational hazard.

In not much more than a decade, sport has given us OJ Simpson and Oscar Pistorius. If the bail hearing was anything to go by, the Pistorius trial will be the hottest ticket in global entertainment. The only question is whether it can keep generating plot twists to match that of the lead detective being charged with attempted murder.

Some may consider this approach reprehensibly flippant given that an apparently blameless young woman has died in horrible or tragic circumstances.

Having had his sense of humour, not to mention his life, severely dented by an eye-watering matrimonial settlement, former comic genius John Cleese emerged from a largely joke-free hiatus to tweet, “Oscar’s defence will be that he was absolutely legless at the time.”

This was reported censoriously, beneath headlines suggesting the tweet had caused “outrage” among Cleese’s followers. On closer inspection it turned out that retweets and favourites outnumbered complaints by roughly 1500 to one.

In reality, Pistorius’s involvement is the only thing that differentiates this case from any number of similarly sad and/or sordid incidents. Unless they are spectacularly lurid or involve famous people, these events are like trees that fall in the forest, because our fascination with celebrity scandal outweighs our capacity to empathise when tragedy strikes people we don’t know in faraway places.

This case reinforces the fact that sport is now a branch of the global entertainment industry, but it also highlights the danger of treating sporting stars as role models. (Last year, Time nominated Pistorius as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.)

Pistorius’s refusal to be defined by his disability was something to behold. He is obviously ferociously determined and one of the most competitive animals on Earth, which are pluses for an athlete, but don’t necessarily make you delightful company.

The problem with making people role models based on what they do in a professional capacity in the public arena is that those attributes and achievements are not a reliable guide to the private individual. Which tells us more about Pistorius the person, his athletic performances or the fact that three weeks before he shot his girlfriend with his licensed 9mm pistol, he applied for licences for another six firearms?

Pistorius’s nickname, “Blade Runner”, has showbiz origins, being the title of the 1982 Ridley Scott movie, now rightfully regarded as a masterpiece, although at the time its blend of neo-noir and science fiction left critics and audiences bemused.

I wonder how many of those still using the nickname are aware that blade runners were professional hitmen, albeit state-sanctioned. Reluctant blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) is coerced into hunting down four replicants – genetically engineered organic robots; “more human than human”, in the words of their creator – who illegally return to Earth after being deployed “off-world”.

“The report said ‘Routine retirement of a replicant,’” says Deckard in a voiceover after dispatching the first of them. “That didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back.”

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